Rain storms battered northern
England in December and it's now the turn of the south-west. But should we
be better prepared for the floods that have followed this winter's heavy
rain? And what can the UK learn from flood defences in the Netherlands?
A review of the UK's flood
resilience led by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Letwin MP,
will ask if we've got our approach to flood risk right.
Many people in York will have
already made up their own minds, as the clear-up around the city continues
after widespread flooding followed unprecedented rainfall levels.
The UK government already has in
place a construction programme of £2.3bn-worth of flood defences, but most
of the towns and valleys that suffered catastrophic floods over Christmas,
including York, were not on that list.
A 30-year-old complex built to
control river levels in York failed over Christmas, because it leaked.
"I think there's a very good reason for anger in terms of the failure
to prove the integrity of the flood defence system," said David Hirst, who
sits on the Institute of Civil Engineers Yorkshire region advisory board.
"We should be able to rely on it. If we've invested this money in these
assets we should be able to rely on them working effectively."
The asset Mr Hirst is talking about
is the barrier that separates the mighty River Ouse from its tributary in
York city centre, the Foss.
"Unprecedented" rainfall in the
catchment of the Foss caught the Environment Agency unaware. The water
overwhelmed the barrier's electricity supply and forced the authorities to
shut the system down and lift the barrier.
That left the Foss to run free and
the resultant flood affected Mr Hirst's office as well as hundreds of
businesses and homes in a part of York not used to the floodwaters that
occasionally hit the city.
Yet the barrier's weakness was known
for more than a decade and it was awaiting a £3m refit.
Area manager Mike Dugher says the
Environment Agency will always have a programme of improving and investing
in new and existing defences, but admits: "We can't do it all at once, so
it's important we've got that commitment to a continual programme of
investing in and improving defences. There isn't a one-off fix that will
They don't talk about one-off fixes
in York's counterpart in the Netherlands either, but they do view flood risk
differently and pride themselves on thinking ahead of the water that arrives
in Dutch rivers from Germany and Switzerland.
The city of Nijmegen could almost be
York's twin. They share not just a river location, but also a Roman and
Viking heritage, a similar population size and a thriving University. It is
about to put the finishing touches to a 400m-euro (£309m) flood defence
project, part of a wider 2.3bn-euro (£1.78bn) scheme along the River Waal,
which splits Nijmegen in two.
The Room for the River project on
the Waal, which is the name for the Rhine where it crosses the Netherlands,
was conceived after a near-miss in the mid-1990s that saw more than 250,000
people evacuated from their homes when huge dykes were in danger of being
Nijmegen's bit of the project, which
will be finished this year, is a "mirror" River Waal, a 3.5km (2.2 miles)
flood alleviation basin on the city's North Bank that fills up when rising
river levels threaten to overwhelm the real river.
More than 5 million cubic metres
(177bn cubic feet) of soil and sand had to be dug out to create the channel
Faced with the problem of a
bottleneck and a tight turn on the River Waal at Nijmegen, national and
local authorities decided to create a space for the river to escape to
instead of overwhelming the city. Fifty families had to be re-homed, but the
city council turned a negative into a positive by turning the channel into a
new water park for the city.
"We have high hopes," said Nijmegen
mayor Hubert Bruls. "It's a keen area for people to live in so my prediction
is we will experience some economic boom in the years to come. The people
are coming and the economy will follow, that's the golden law."
"We invest a lot in the programme,"
said Hans Brouwer, of the Rijkeswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the
Environment Agency. "But if you look at it economically you talk about 300bn
euros, if you compare the possible damage. And the higher the damage and the
higher the population, the higher the standards."
The scale and hard-engineering of
the "mirror" river at Nijmegen would not be an easy fit in York's historic
centre, but it is the long-term thinking and grand imagination behind the
whole scheme that excites experts in the UK.
Across its other 34 sites across the
Netherlands, Room for the River also features more conventional flood
defences, such as flood meadows and deeper river channels, as well as the
water being allowed to go where it wants to go.
Some experts think this long-term
approach that looks at the whole of a river's catchment, rather than just
defending sites piecemeal where floods occur, ought to be adopted in the UK.
"To date the emphasis has been on
protecting downstream communities by building big flood defences, but I
think we're in the situation now where you can't do that alone," said Daniel
Johns of the Committee on Climate Change. "That has to continue but at the
same time we need to work at a catchment scale.
"And it's about rolling it out at
scale, doing this in every single catchment, particularly in those places
which have been affected this winter. The science suggests it's not a matter
of these events happen again, but when and where."
The Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs said it was spending £2.3bn to better protect 300,000
homes with 1,500 flood defences, but also said the idea of looking at the
whole catchment of a river would be a key part of its 25-year plan for flood
"As we face ever more frequent
extreme weather events such as those in December, it is right we look at
what lessons can be learned. That is why we have commissioned a proper
in-depth review that will give us a chance to look at our defences and
modelling to explore new ways of tackling these types of floods in the
future," said a spokeswoman.