Reactive engineering is not the solution, argues Sue Dawson
That Scotland has experienced a range of extreme weather from snow, gale-force winds, hail and extremes of temperature are nothing new for this time of year. However, what is increasingly prevalent is the use of terms in the media such as the headline that a “weather bomb” will bring three weeks of hell to the UK, with 80mph winds, blizzards and temperatures falling to -9C; or that “Storm-ravaged Britain” is facing a further “battering” over the coming days as gales continue to “savage” the coastline.
This emotive use of such sensationalist language does nothing to allay the fears of householders across the country. Indeed, it can elevate the threat of flooding and disaster, often without due attention to the meteorological facts. Two things arise from this. Firstly, householders can become complacent if the dire warnings prove to be unfounded and, secondly, this can lead to mistrust in government, news and forecast agencies. Both will lead to vulnerability and risk to the population as they try to decide when a threat is credible or when it is over-hyped.
The threat of severe weather conditions generally, and flooding in particular, are of concern. A summary from the Met Office reports that the winter of 2013-14 was exceptionally stormy, with 12 major winter storms affecting the UK from mid December to mid February. This was some of the stormiest weather experienced in the UK for at least 20 years and the wettest December-to-January period since records began, culminating in serious coastal damage due to tidal surges and widespread, persistent flooding.
There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense. More research is advocated by the Met Office to detect changes in storminess. This will lead to refined climate models and will provide the solid evidence-base for future investments in flood and coastal defences.
The issue of flood defences is an interesting question to examine here. To defend or not to defend? Following the winter of 2013-14 the Treasury agreed to spend £2.3 billion on flood defences across the UK to 2020. Over 1,400 flood defence projects are to receive funding to provide better protection from flooding for up to 300,000 homes and to prevent an estimated £30bn of damage. The Westminster government has previously come under fire for its flood defence funding, with critics warning that not enough was being spent to protect homes and businesses from the increased risk of flooding in the face of climate change.
However, rather than rail against nature there is a need to make us more resilient to flood hazard and to consider alternative measures. Through The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), Scotland is adopting a new approach to managing flood risk. There is a move away from reactive engineering solutions to a more pre-emptive approach to reduce the impact on communities. This approach will anticipate future flood risk more effectively, taking a more long-term and sustainable view. This covers all sources of flood waters from rivers, coastal areas and groundwater flooding. Plans include changing land management to restore natural habitats to create “room for water”; building homes and infrastructure away from flood plains and areas of high risk; increased use of SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems) to relieve pressure on the often old drainage and sewerage systems; and, finally, to provide buffer zones in coastal areas with the promotion of saltmarsh development to protect coastal assets.
The Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee, a leader in resilience research in Scotland, advocates an integrated approach to environmental changes. This approach considers the relationship to nature and the wider environment integrating science, forecasting, and modelling of change with the development of community-based resilience in a more holistic approach to flood-risk management.
In considering the approach to flooding there is a need to consider the whole catchment from upland source to coastal sink. The re-foresting of uplands to divert flood waters will reduce the impact of the flood peak downstream and ultimately reduce the impact on homes and businesses. We need to consider why we build on floodplains and continue to develop areas that have suffered widespread flooding in the past. The government advisory group, Committee on Climate Change, in 2011 found that tens of thousands of properties were still built on flood plains around the UK. Maybe people who have experienced the effects of a catastrophic flooding event adopt the view that they are unlikely to be affected again in the future.
It is vital to consider these approaches. Many are long-term and not a short-term reactive fix to flooding but, as we proceed through the 21st century, we need an increasing integrated approach to natural hazards in general and flood management in particular if we are to make a success of adapting to the effects of future climate changes.
• Sue Dawson is senior lecturer in Geography, School of the Environment, University of Dundee