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By Pedr Jones, Business Development at Waterco Ltd, an independent civil engineering consultancy specialising in water, drainage and flood risk management and based in Ruthin, North Wales.

Natural Approaches to Flood Risk

The recent UK storms and heavy rainfall have brought coastal and river flood defence to the fore. The strategy of how the increased risk of flooding is addressed in the coming years will be discussed and debated over the coming weeks and months, with the issues of funding, risk and benefits already highly politicised.

Mixed messages

The recent article in the Guardian by George Monbiot “Drowning in Money”, followed up by a feature on Natural Approaches by the BBC’s Countryfile stirred up excellent debate, however both were imbalanced and led to counter arguments from the farming community and the pro-traditional approach.

Mixed messages from politicians and experts (“to dredge or not to dredge”), Royal Visits and 24/7 news has made the topic increasingly difficult and confusing. Division along the lines of Environment Agency v Agriculture, Investment v Austerity and Cost v Benefit are in danger of missing the point.

The future of flood risk management should not be decided in an adversarial arena. Yes development has unwisely taken place on flood plains, but the people who currently live there should not be held accountable. Furthermore, Global warming is a manifestation of actions by the whole population, so those who suffer from intense storms, should be supported by all of us.

Funding cannot be unlimited

Direct comparison with the Netherlands in terms of financial investment in flood defences is fruitless. They spend a proportionately higher percentage of GDP on flood defences (through direct levies), they have a smaller coastline, and half of their population is at flood risk.

In the UK 1 in 5 are considered at risk of flooding, and therefore it is unlikely that an increase in taxation for flood defences would be well received by the majority of UK voters. We can ask for more money, for higher flood walls, and more regular dredging, but as stated by the EA, it is not a bottomless funding pot!

Direction needs to be given, and legislation put in place that allows for greater proportion of funds to be allocated to the right areas, providing the most appropriate solution for the problem at hand.

Somerset Levels

The recent problems faced in Somerset provide an excellent “snapshot” of a wider problem throughout the UK. As an historical floodplain, the Levels have been drained for centuries to create agriculturally rich land on which to farm. Technology improvements have increased productive land. Planning policy too, has not “made space for water” and the move from owner to agency-led responsibility for land and environment management has been underfunded.

All of these things have put a strain on the environment and nature has fought back. It’s time to call for an amnesty and stop the blame game in order to have a serious discussion about how we correct some of the wrongs, improve on what we are doing well and learn from the past.

Complement Traditional with the Natural

£100m has been earmarked to tackle the effects of the recent flooding. However this “knee jerk” approach is unsustainable, costly and traditional hard engineering approaches alone may in fact just move the problem on to someone else.

Using the old saying: If we keep on doing what we have always done, we will keep on getting the same results; and will require larger walls, bigger pipes, and more money.

Whilst a traditional flood defence structure will only benefit those it is protecting, a natural approach provides many benefits (see opposite) and as such can draw together funding from several sources to achieve multiple objectives.

Natural approaches can be used to complement defences, and by doing so it is possible to deliver a greater number of schemes, protect more people and achieve multiple objectives with the same capital outlay.

In fact 80% savings are achievable!

So how is this done? The principle of reversing the effects of increased urban areas, agricultural land drainage, and reduced tree cover to reduce flood risk is not new. Simply put, the approach is to work with nature, not against it, and carry out more natural and sustainable interventions within catchments that result in greater water attenuation or increased infiltration. Re-establishment of wetlands and woodland planting are the principal methods to slow down water.

Utilising scientific research, studying the hydrology and creating hydraulic models it is now possible to quantify the reduction in flood risk. So why isn’t it being done? There have been numerous successful case studies and “pilot” projects, but it is by no means mainstream. Parties need to come together not just to discuss, but to act.

A “call to action” is required as shown in the following table:

Sector Aim Action
Politicians Align funds from multiple sources to the most cost effective solution. Incentivise Natural Approaches. Incentivise innovation. Ensure funds are available to act as the “Anchor” buyer for a partnership approach. Re-visit the Pitt Review recommendations and ensure implemented effectively.
Agency Align authority strategies to ensure multiple objectives are met that optimise funding. Targets in place to provide an holistic catchment approach to meet Biodiversity, Water Framework and Flood Risk Objectives.
Local Authority Align authority strategies to ensure multiple objectives are met that optimise funding. Bring heads of departments together, initiate partnerships.
Utilities & Infrastructure Financial contributions made available for schemes that result in mutually beneficial outcomes. Bring to the table at the early stages of feasibility and viability. E.g. Water Utility wishing to improve water quality, power utility looking to improve resilience, and railways preventing unforeseen closure.
Agriculture On-going management & stewardship of a natural processes scheme in line with resilient farming objectives and a role in the success of rural economies and farm diversification. Engagement with farmers, land owners & unions. Transfer of knowledge and ideas between land managers, farmers and flood risk managers. This needs to be 2 way dialogue. Understand & communicate the benefits and lessons learnt from Pontbren to farming practice with help from Unions and Government to access the financial incentives available.
Community, Education and 3rd Sector Understand the benefits of natural interventions, involvement in delivery and ongoing management of the scheme. Additional benefits such as green infrastructure, eco-tourism, green spaces for health & recreation. Engage early with the local communities for support and ideas. Initiate school projects to learn more about our interactions with the environments. Seek input from charitable trusts such e.g. Woodlands Trust to increase resource and knowledge base for projects.

Benefits of the natural approach

Flood Risk – Flood peaks can be reduced through greater attenuation reducing the risk to downstream properties. Furthermore, the approach complements existing infrastructure e.g. by trapping woody debris in the catchment can prevent structures such as bridges and culverts from being blocked downstream.

Water Quality – Water Framework Directive is met through improved water quality and colour removal through filtration, trapping fine sediment and the removal of diffuse pollution e.g. Nitrate

Biodiversity – Creating wetlands, restoring peat land, planting woodland can have great benefits by enriching biodiversity in an area.

Recreational, Education & Health – Re-open green space for green leisure & tourism, sustainable business, and increase skills to maintain the natural environment.

Jobs – Green Economy by providing jobs e.g. river restoration, sustainable fuels, tourism.

Farming – The ability to raise hardier breeds of sheep which are better suited to graze upland areas. Cut costs and make their farms more sustainable for the next generation of farmers.

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