Is the UK on a collision course with regular mass flooding events?

The UK is certainly a wet little island. Each winter the headlines across the country are dominated by flooding event after flooding event, as villages and towns fall prey to flood waters, rivers burst their banks, and flood defences across the country fall short.

Recent years have seen several major flooding events across the UK, leaving billions of pounds worth of damage in their wake. The winter of 2013/2014 was a season of particularly unfavourable weather with Cornwall and Somerset affected by rainfall. In Cornwall, several communities were left under several feet of water and buildings were damaged beyond repair. In addition to this the only rail line linking Cornwall to the rest of the UK was severed. The Somerset Levels faced similar damage, with over 17,000 acres of land submerged for several months. For weeks the news agenda was dominated by tales of destruction.

And since then the UK has not remained unscathed. The winter floods of 2015-2016 have been ranked alongside the ravaging flooding of March 1947 as one of the largest flooding events of the past century. Many areas in the north of England were affected and the cost to the UK economy ran into the hundreds of millions.

This winter has been fortunately quiet in comparison to last year’s mass flooding events, but we certainly can’t expect this to be the norm. So what can be done to prevent flooding events of this scale happening again? How does the UK intend to protect itself from this ongoing flooding?

Dredging is a frequent discussion point here. Every year there is much talk of dredging our rivers, in order to clear unseen debris and allow river water to flow more freely. While this would undoubtedly help ease the problems, there’s no guarantee that it would help prevent flooding events altogether.

Others point to the wider implementation of SUDS projects (sustainable urban drainage solutions), which mimic natural drainage behaviours, and limit the consequences of large amounts of water falling in urban areas. Solutions such as building more drainage ditches and the development of wetland areas, are all valid projects, however, in the face of major rain fall and extreme weather conditions, they are nothing more than a sticky plaster remedy compared to the results achieved by large scale anti-flooding engineering projects.

Of course, large scale infrastructure projects of this nature cost money. And lots of it. However, when you consider the human cost (not to mention the ongoing cost to the UK economy), of consistent winter flooding devastation, it is an outlay that many would argue is entirely valid.

Clearly we can expect to face similar flooding events again and again, and so, we need to implement more permanent large scale engineered solutions to the problem.

And unfortunately we’re not alone in our flooding misery. Every year most of Europe struggles to deal with winter flooding events that devastate communities and lives.

Of course some countries have been coping with extreme winter weather conditions since the dawn of time and thus their infrastructure has evolved to a level where they are, by and large, able to cope.

In Canada, heavy snowfall and ice cover happens year-on-year. In order to keep the country moving, an estimated C$1billion is spent every year on removing snow and ice. The Finnish capital Helsinki has an average snow depth of 30cm. The main airport in the city rarely faces closures thanks to a fleet of hundreds of snow removal vehicles. In fact, the last time it had to close all of its runways due to snow was back in 2003, and that was only for 30 minutes. And whilst, it must be acknowledged, that snow and ice offers a different set of problems to that of heavy rainfall, the lesson is clear, in order to avoid havoc and devastation, investment in the appropriate equipment and infrastructure is key.

An example of a country whose water management systems should be recognised as one of the best – the Netherlands. Holland is home to 8 million people who live below sea level, and as a result has had large scale water management systems in place to combat flooding for centuries. Windmills, for which the country is famous, have been helping to pump water off the land for more than half a millennium. In fact, some sources even suggest that there were primitive flood defences in what is now the Netherlands as far back as 500BC. Modern Holland has sophisticated and large scale flood defences in place, to such an extent that an estimated 60% of the country would be flooded were they not in effect. Hans Brouwers, a Dutch rivers expert, says that the UK needs to see last winter’s floods as a “wake-up call,” and get serious about water management solutions.

Clearly considerable thought needs to be given to flood defence investment in this country. After all, since 2007, the UK has experienced major flooding on several occasions. Such devastation is simply unacceptable and in many cases avoidable.

It’s time for action. It’s now vital for us to look to implement a multi-billion pound, long term water management infrastructure plan that will safeguard these wet little isles for decades to come.