The Flood Risk Management Community Prepare for the Perfect Storm

Catherine Morgan
Thursday, 19th June 2014

In the wake of some of the worst flooding to affect the Balkan states in more than a century, large parts of both Serbia and Bosnia were submerged following unprecedented levels of rainfall – 100mm in just 48 hours. The Serbian Prime Minister declared the event ‘the greatest flooding disaster ever’ with a state of emergency declared in 18 towns and cities including Belgrade1.  The full impact of the floods is still unknown, but to date it is thought that they destroyed over 100,000 houses, wrecked community and municipal buildings and devastated the region’s transport infrastructure, hampering evacuation and rescue procedures.  The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimated that the damage and the clean-up operation in both Serbia and Bosnia – complicated by almost 120,000 landmines could reach almost $5 billion US dollars.

Of course it wasn’t so long ago that the UK was facing its own devastation as the winter floods of 2013 inundated Somerset and the surrounding areas week after week, causing damage estimated to have reached £1billion with severe consequences for small businesses, communities and families, many of whom are still struggling to recover2.   While hundreds of broken flood defences have now been repaired as a result of emergency funding from government, community groups claim that families affected by the flooding need help moving on with their lives.

There has been much speculation about the role of global warming in these major flooding events, and whether they may be a taster of what’s to come in future.  While the Met Office’s response the UK’s winter floods stated that there is ‘no definitive answer’ to that question, there is a growing portfolio of evidence that shows extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is in line with what could be expected from Global Warming3.   The release of the IPCC 5th assessment report states that there is robust evidence that the number of people affected by river flooding will increase with greater warming, while there is very high confidence that coastal and low-lying areas will experience inundation and erosion more frequently due to sea level rise4.

Given these projections - more high intensity precipitation events, rising sea levels and coastal inundation, it is clear that the issue of flood risk management is highly topical.  Our changing climate, alongside issues such as growing populations, increasing urbanisation, and economic development under austerity measures means that both the likelihood and the consequences of flooding will increase. This mélange of change is what Sir John Beddington referred to as ‘The Perfect Storm’.

While questions remain about the extent our warming climate has played in recent extreme events, and the confidence with which we can make assertions about projections from climate models, what the latest IPCC report tells us is that our world is warming - of that there is little doubt.  Perhaps it is time to put questions about what we don’t know aside and focus our attention and our efforts on our society’s collective response to what we do know – change is occurring and it is impacting the hydrological cycle5.

Within the UK there is a body of professional and academic expertise in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management comprising expert practitioners from across research, policy and practice sectors.  This community of practitioners are a crucial resource that will help shape the future of Flood Risk Management (FRM).  Together, we recognise that there is no one single approach to FRM, rather a holistic approach that targets the physical engineering challenges, respects and enhances the natural ecological catchment dynamics and engages local communities in creating socially responsible and sustainable approaches to climate resilience is required.  Recognising that each catchment is unique in terms of its hydrological regime, land-use and micro-dynamics means that a holistic approach to Flood Risk Management must allow practitioners to have autonomy in decision-making, whilst operating within a framework of best-practice - derived from a combination of cutting edge research and practitioner knowledge and expertise.

A Needs-Driven Network

A vision such as this is impressive in its aspirations, but is it actually practically attainable? The simple answer is, we believe it is!  In November 2013 the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Network (FCERM.net) was officially launched.  That first meeting brought together key researchers in FRM with practitioners from across the whole sector including local authorities, the Environment Agency, SEPA, the Met Office and DEFRA, who were joined by industry representatives from the UK’s commercial Flood Risk Management sector.   One of the Network’s core objectives is to facilitate interaction between researchers and end-users, ensuring that research undertaken is of significant practical value, and that research outcomes are disseminated in tangible, meaningful ways to the end-user.

The Network is led by Professor Garry Pender who believes that there has been a paradigm shift in the way we consider Flood Risk Management.

 ‘Globally, flood defence strategies have shifted to those of flood risk management. This includes flood prevention, but also requires that society learns to live with floods and that stakeholders living and working in flood-prone areas develop coping strategies to increase their resilience.  This movement stems from the realisation that continuing to strengthen and extend conventional flood defences is unsustainable and new approaches are needed’

An Inclusive Community

A further objective of the network is to break down disciplinary boundaries and create an inclusive community of practitioners with a range of skills and experience outwith the traditional realms of science and engineering. 

“Because flooding has far-reaching impacts beyond the physical nature and timeframe of the flood itself, floods can generate millions of pounds of damage, but it is the longer-term impacts to communities such as loss of life, mental health impacts and insurance costs that create lasting damage.  These are complex interdisciplinary issues that require expertise from meteorologists, hydrologists, mathematical modellers, behavioural psychologists, economists and engineers.”

Leaders in Innovation

There are examples of best-practice in Flood Risk Management all over the world, but some of the most significant breakthroughs have been made here in the UK.  The network exists to drive forward innovation in this field and aims to create a legacy of research and practice that is world-leading.  FCERM.net provides opportunities for members to come together to contribute their ideas and experiences, with a view to creating truly innovative, leading-edge research that makes a significant difference to those working in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management.  We believe that it is through working together like this that we will be able to build a sustainable and resilient society prepared for life in a rapidly changing world.

 

References

1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/flooding

2.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/insuranc...

3. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/2014/uk-storms-and-floods

4. http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_SPM_Approved.pdf

5. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/04/us-climate-talks-idUSBRE8B217F...