UK must learn from Cumbrian floods says Government

Environment Secretary acknowledges the need to learn from extreme weather events as experts urge government to employ better planning and a wider range of resilience measures

As Cumbria continues to deal with the massive impact of record rainfall the acknowledgment that more must be done to protect vital infrastructure is starting to grow. Even the government has accepted this. “Since 2009 we have invested £45million in new defences in Cumbria. But we will need to learn lessons and reflect on what we can learn from this extreme weather event,” said Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss in a statement to the House of Lords on Monday.

The cost of the closure of vital infrastructure is yet to be calculated but will include the impact of closing the west coast main line between Carlisle and Scotland, the loss of power to 55,000 properties and businesses, and the impact of lost connectivity between towns and villages as bridges were destroyed by surging flood waters. And of course there is the damage to the 3500 properties that were flooded, 2000 of which were in Carlisle – despite the £45m spent on flood defences after the 2005 floods.

"Local communities need a wider range of resilience measures so they are not solely reliant on conventional defences."

Professor David Balmforth, flooding expert and ICE past president

Although such investment is clearly welcome with Truss pointing out that the defences protected 11,500 properties, experts say that protecting homes and infrastructure means doing more than just investing the £2.3bn that government has earmarked for 1500 schemes.

 “Government’s commitment to invest £2.3bn in flood risk management over the next six years is welcome, but as extreme weather events become more frequent and unpredictable, we will need a more holistic approach to flood resilience.  “Events like this serve as a harsh reminder of the finite capacity of our flood defences, and the destructive impact extreme flooding has on our communities. Cascade failure of infrastructure services such as power and transport further exacerbate the disruption,” said Professor David Balmforth, flood expert and past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

 “For example, local communities need a wider range of resilience measures so they are not solely reliant on conventional defences, we must adopt a ‘systems’ approach which tackles the ‘domino effect’ we see across the networks, funding for the maintenance of existing defences should be factored into spend plans from the outset, and where new development is proposed we should ensure resilience is at the heart of the design - not an afterthought.”

Rainfall of 341mm was measured over 24 hours in Cumbria this weekend. The monthly December average according to the Met Office is 141mm

At the same time infrastructure owners should be pushed to build in flood resilience measures, a measure that could be pursued through regulatory regimes and would involve more planning, analysis and investment from asset owners. The first step would be for asset owners to understand their risks. A 2014 report from the Royal Society into resilience in extreme weather called for asset owners to report their financial exposure to extreme weather, along with seven other key recommendations that would reduce the cost and impact of natural disasters.

  1. Develop and resource resilience strategies – prioritise protection of critical infrastructure and incorporate resilience into policy
  2. Coordinate with international governments and invest more in resilience measures
  3. Ensure policy frameworks covering climate change and disaster risk are aligned and consistent regarding extreme weather
  4. Take practical measures to protect people and assets from extreme weather
  5. Better account for financial risks – ask asset owners to report their financial exposure to extreme weather at 1:100 year (1%) risk levels
  6. Make information about extreme weather suitable for users needs
  7. Increase research into modelling future climate change impacts

The flooding events in Cumbria this winter are thought to be the worst in history with Truss confirming that the Bellwin scheme for funding local authorities affected by flooding would be opened in response to the event with further support measures to be announced in coming days.  

"On Saturday night we saw an unprecedented amount of rainfall. More than a month’s rain fell in one day and during Saturday night main rivers all across Cumbria exceeded the highest levels ever recorded," said Truss. "There is a mark on the bridge in Carlisle showing the flood level in 1853. The 2005 flood was half a metre higher than 1853, which was the highest on record until then. This flood was half a metre higher again. It was 0.6m higher than previous records in Kendal, 0.7 of a metre higher in Keswick and 0.3 of a metre higher in Appleby."


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A completely different approach might be to look at what George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian almost two years ago but probably more relevant than ever now. I can't say I agree with all of his thesis but it's better than just doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome.