Chris Mills argues that we must make ourselves more resilient to changing weather patterns resulting from climate change
It’s official. We’ve had the wettest April to June on record with June alone seeing 258 per cent of its average rainfall. One in six homes in Wales is currently at risk of flooding, and with the effects of climate change, this figure is set to increase. A recent report by the Commission on Climate Change’s Adaptation Sub-Committee concluded that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of floods and, paradoxically, droughts. The importance of being resilient has never been so acute.
While we can never completely prevent flooding, we can help people by advising them on what steps to take so that, if the worst does happen, they can protect themselves, their families, and valuables. The number of people who have signed up for flood warnings in Wales has doubled in the last two years. Even so, we have to maintain this progress and keep on reminding people that flooding can still affect them. In the last two years we have spoken directly with 71,000 people to do just that, and have helped almost 300 communities to prepare for themselves a local flood plan suitable for their area.
This image below, showing the intensity of the rain that fell on a very localised area in mid Wales on 9 June, was created using new techniques to analyse flood risk and weather patterns. The Afon Leri rose to more than six times its average level causing flooding and wrecking homes and businesses in the Talybont area.
On top of the blow this dealt to the local economy and tourist industry, the human effect of flooding is also devastating. Listening, as I did, to the personal stories of the people affected really brought home the message that while weather patterns – and the future impact of climate change upon them – are a global phenomena, this is an issue that can have a dramatic effect on a local and very personal scale.
These are the sort of weather patterns we have to get used to. It is vital that we take action now to prepare, protect and adapt ourselves, our homes, businesses and infrastructure. But how do we balance the conflicting pressures of population and housing growth, and more frequent flooding, in the context of shrinking public sector budgets?
Last year Environment Agency Wales received £26 million pounds from the Welsh Government for flood prevention. This enabled us to build, improve and maintain almost 2,000 miles of flood defences and more than 5,000 sluices, outfalls, flood gates and barriers to reduce flood risk from rivers and the sea. As a result we have reduced the risk of flooding for 16,000 homes and businesses in Wales in the last four years, taking them out of the ‘significant risk’ category. Others, including local authorities and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water, are also investing in schemes to reduce the number of floods.
In our Future flooding in Wales: Flood defences report, we stated that the total investment in flood management for all flood risk management authorities in Wales needs to triple to £135 million a year by 2035 to maintain current protection levels.
But public funding for flood defences will face stiff competition in the coming years as the Welsh Government faces challenges to its budgets for health, education and a myriad of other demands.
So we must all work together to explore all available options for more innovative and sustainable ways to manage flood risk in the future. We need to recognise the greater range of benefits that flood defence schemes bring to our communities. Reducing flood risk has significant social and economic benefits, not least the potential to avoid the costs associated with the damage and losses created by severe flood events.
Much of Wales’ infrastructure, including road and rail networks, electricity distribution and sewerage pumping stations, is vulnerable to flooding. Policy-makers and strategists would do well to give due consideration to these issues in their requirements from developers in both public and private sectors. This could include making it incumbent on those who seek to exploit commercial opportunities not to increase flood risk for people living or working in that community. And in building a new supermarket, housing development, school, or road scheme, developers should also consider how they could help manage or reduce any associated flood risk.
Planners and flood experts need to work closely together. Is it really any surprise that places called ‘Riverside Caravan Park’ or ‘Parc y Llyn’ were among those flooded in June? If the proposed 45,000 new homes are to be built in Cardiff by 2026, it’s imperative that sustainable urban drainage systems are considered in the early planning stages.
In addition to new ways of funding flood defence in future, we also need to be more creative in the way the money is spent. Using the natural environment to manage flood risk can be a more sustainable long-term solution. Taking a ‘whole catchment’ approach would help us to see the importance of good land management in reducing the risk of flooding at source, rather than trying to tackle the symptoms elsewhere in the river catchment.
Natural vegetation and forests can help retain water in upland soils, so that less water and sediment finds its way so quickly into rivers and streams. Re-introducing more permeable surfaces such as grassed areas in urban communities would absorb more water and help reduce surface water from flooding our towns and cities. And along the coastline, salt-marshes that take the energy from waves is more cost-effective than building a flood wall, and will also benefit people and wildlife.
To make sure we get maximum benefit from existing funds, the Welsh Government is currently reviewing, through its Single Investment Programme, how we might spend Wales’ total flood management budget even more efficiently.
Developers, flood planners, local authorities, communities and the Welsh Government must join up their thinking and their actions. The recent flooding we’ve experienced is a useful reminder of the need to work together in ever more creative ways to mitigate future flood risks for the benefits of the communities we serve and Wales’ wider economic development.