The UK is ill-prepared for the disaster future storms could wreak, scientists have warned, after Storm Ciarán swept the country.
Experts believe a warming atmosphere caused by emissions from burning fossil fuels will make storms more frequent and severe in the UK. This autumn, storms have caused thousands of homes in the UK to flood, and last week almost 150,000 households were left without power.
Schools in Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney had to shut due to the bad weather and across the British Isles roofs were blown off homes, some train lines ground to a halt and the Port of Dover was backed up with queues. In Surrey, thousands were left without water after the storm disrupted Thames Water’s treatment works.
Scientists fear the government is not putting enough effort into flood resilience, which could cost people their homes, livelihoods and even their lives.
Trevor Hoey, professor of river science at Brunel University London and director of the Centre for Flood Risk and Resilience, said: “I am concerned that with all of the other priorities that governments at different levels have to deal with, this may not get the attention it perhaps deserves.
“The risk is that we continue to be somewhat reactive. We wait until there has been a flood event and then we try to stop that event from occurring again in the same place in the future. We need to think at slightly larger scale about how we can mitigate and also help people to adapt to climate change at a national scale.”
Prof Jim Hall, from the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, added that regular checks of flood protections needed to be put in place so the response was proactive rather than reactive.
He said: “The National Infrastructure Commission has said that government should set a long-term measurable target to reduce the number of properties likely to be flooded by rivers or the sea. But government action cannot eliminate the risks from flooding, so regular stress tests and exercises should be conducted to ensure that we are able to cope with the extreme events that are expected in the future.”
The flood prevention approach has been to build large, hard structures to protect infrastructure, but Hoey said this was expensive and had major drawbacks. “It does tend to lead to rivers becoming ecologically impoverished, and there are significant downsides. In parts of the world where hard engineering has been used at scale, for example, in Japan, there is a movement now towards actually trying to move away from those hard structures towards a more holistic natural flood management approach to try to deal with a problem at the source,” he said.
He added that building on floodplains meant excess water could not drain away due to the hard surfaces covering the natural route the water would otherwise have taken. “A lot of those are now covered over with hard surfaces means that some of the natural routes the water would have followed are now obstructed, and the water gets diverted. It ends up ponding up in certain areas and you get the sort of pictures that we have seen over the last few days, following Storm Ciarán.”
Nature-based solutions should also be used, said Prof Rick Stafford, the chair of the British Ecological Society’s policy committee. “Healthy ecosystems are a powerful ally to build resilience against increasing numbers and intensity of storms. Ecosystems such as peatlands and saltmarshes can help slow the flow and store excessive rainwater, preventing rivers and coastal areas from flooding. In the sea, habitats such as kelp beds can reduce the wave action reaching our shores. While we normally think of ecosystems in terms of protecting biodiversity, the services they provide are numerous, and can help us adapt to changing conditions driven by global heating,” he said.
Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, said: “In terms of future resilience and preparedness, I would say we are not very well prepared in some places even now. At some locations in the UK, climate change means that existing threats will become more likely and more dangerous, such as on some coasts as sea levels rise, or in areas prone to landslips or river flooding. Resilience to storms means taking action to prepare for the worst possible conditions while the going is good, and that can seem expensive and unnecessary to many people when the sun is shining.
“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best is good advice. It requires a mix of pessimistic imagination – what’s the worst that could happen? – alongside some rational pragmatism – what can I do now to avoid the worst impacts when it does?”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are investing a record £5.2 billion investment in flood and coastal erosion schemes and have better protected more than 381,000 properties since 2015.
“We are doubling the number of government-backed projects on nature-based solutions, including through tree planting, peat recovery and paying farmers and land managers for natural flood management measures. We have a long-term approach and ambitious goals, working with local communities, to ensure all those at risk of flooding are better protected and prepared for the future.”
Source : The Guardian