Flood preparedness is increasing but at variable rates

Dr Chris Digman, technical director of urban planning and flood risk management at MWH

As new research from Cardiff and Nottingham Universities highlights growing public awareness of climate change and flood events, Infrastructure Intelligence asks Dr Chris Digman of MWH about UK preparedness for flooding.

Are UK utilities and infrastructure prepared for flooding? It’s easy to say no, but it’s not that simple. Preparation is increasing but speeds are variable. One of the largest challenges is balancing investment in resilience against competing short and long term needs.

We are starting to see exemplars of good practice – but this is not necessarily being transferred into business as usual – yet.  In 2014, the Institution of Civil Engineer’s State of the Nation Report highlighted that although there had been progress since 2010, a lot more effort and focus is still required for the UK to become flood resilient.

"It is likely that some infrastructure will need to continue to close temporarily due to flooding and this may be appropriate and proportionate as part of a planned response"

This has been set against a difficult economic setting facing many sectors and in particular local authorities with significantly reduced budgets. Privatised utilities are significantly challenged by regulators to decrease the cost of consumer bills, which whilst understandable may not support longer term needs. It has long been argued that putting off such costs today, will result in greater expense tomorrow.

Whilst UK Government has put in place various infrastructure plans we need greater action to ensure we are ready and resilient.

Since the Pitt Review in 2008, there has been a growing momentum to move from protection to resilience. We have the ability to understand risk better as we see improvements in the ability to predict the likelihood of flooding (from multiple sources) and the impact it causes.

For example, some water and sewerage companies are moving from previous qualitative assessments of the likelihood and impact  of asset failure, to quantitative evidence-based approaches which better target investment priorities.

This work is leading to the development of resilience standards and associated programmes of work to make changes to assets to ensure they will operate through a range of extreme conditions with additional response plans to cope with what-if scenarios. Ultimately the UK needs this to become business as usual.

Forecasting and the use of real time data is driving a step change in some organisations behaviour and how they optimise their assets. It provides an intelligent way to avoid, limit and manage flooding events. It is also supporting decision making made by operatives.

Transferring and sharing knowledge, data and information between sectors will be vital and much greater progress in this area is required. We need to make the most of current and ongoing research programmes and ensure the transfer rate of research findings to practical successes on the ground are significantly increased.

However, it is likely that some infrastructure will need to continue to close temporarily due to flooding and this may be appropriate and proportionate as part of a planned response. This requires engaging with communities so they understand the reasons and help them be resilient to cope with such changes. Society, not just infrastructure, needs to be more resilient to cope with the challenges and extremes of climate change.

Dr Chris Digman is technical director in urban drainage and flood risk management at MWH.

A collaborative research team from Cardiff and the University of Nottingham set out to understand in detail how the British public had responded to the flooding last winter. To do this they surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,002 respondents from across Britain, together with a further group of 995 people drawn from five areas of England and Wales that had been affected by the flooding last winter. Findings included 88% believed that the climate is changing; and 77% believed that insufficient investment in flood infrastructure contributed to the 2013/2014 flooding.


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