THE BLOG

Here We Go Again... It's Time to Get Serious About Our Flood Defences

28/11/2014 16:38 GMT | Updated 28/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Last winter saw mass flooding hit the UK, in what was the wettest winter since records began in 1910. Cornwall and Somerset were the worst affected, and for weeks the news agenda was dominated by tales of the destruction. In Cornwall, several communities were left under several feet of water and a number of buildings along the Newquay beachfront 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 devastation, with over 17,000 acres of land submerged for several months.

Throughout the duration of the 2013/14 winter floods seventeen people lost their lives and many more had their homes damaged, some beyond repair. The total number of homes affected is hard to pin point but the BBC reported in late February 2014 that some 6,500 homes had been damaged by flood water. The cost to the UK economy ran into the hundreds of millions.

Now that the dust has settled and the flood waters have receded, the focus inevitably shifts to the coming winter, and what can be done to prevent these catastrophic flooding events happening again. Troublingly, there are projections of similar levels of rainfall for the next two months, which, if realised, would make 2014 the wettest year since records began. Already we're seeing the early signs of what could be on the way - earlier this month in Pembrokeshire, the River Taf burst its banks flooding farmland in the area, and reports of localised flooding across the UK have been making daily headlines. And let's remember that it's only November, there is most certainly a lot more wet weather to come.

But how does the UK intend to protect itself from the flooding onslaught? At the height of the flood conditions earlier this year, the Environment Agency weathered heavy criticism for not dredging the rivers in the south west after they burst their banks. While this would have undoubtedly helped ease the problems, there's no guarantee that it would have prevented the flooding 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 again this year, and so, we need to undertake more permanent solutions to the problem. As I've already said, in my opinion, these must be large scale engineered solutions. In fact it's difficult to grasp why we don't already have such measures in place. After all, we're not exactly known for our dry climate.

And unfortunately we're not alone in our flooding misery. Every year most of Europe struggles to deal with catastrophic winter flooding events that devastate communities and lives. Just last month floods and landslides hit northern Italy after massive levels of rainfall - Genoa recorded 183mm of rain in two days - leading to rivers bursting their banks and overwhelming roads and bridges. Unfortunately several people lost their 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 with extreme conditions.

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 to stop idly watching the decimation of our communities, and instead look to implement a multi-billion pound, long term water management infrastructure plan that will safeguard these wet little isles for decades to come.

Simon Thomas is the managing director of Asset International, a leading manufacturer and the UK licencee of the Weholite range of large diameter plastic pipes.

Asset International Ltd supplies bespoke designs to the water and construction industries from surface drainage to foul sewers and inter-process pipework www.weholite.co.uk