Arming the EU in the war against flooding

The EU Floods Directive requires member states to work towards a 2011 deadline when they have to identify flooding risks from sources including surface water.

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The EU Floods Directive requires member states to work towards a 2011 deadline when they have to identify flooding risks from sources including surface water. Lis Stedman looks at why the UK's approach to flood prevention is attracting interest from Japan, Australia and the U.S.

Concern about flooding has increased dramatically over the past decade or so in the face of climate change. The EU Floods Directive was proposed in 2006 as a response to catastrophic flooding in Europe between 1998 and 2004. During this period over 100 major floods occurred, causing around 700 deaths, displacing around a million people and leading to insured economic losses of at least €25 billion.

The flood toll has continued to rise in the intervening years, with the latest major incident occurring this February when intense flash floods and mudslides on the Portuguese island of Madeira killed over 40 people and injured more than 100.

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Devastating: the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth in England suffered overwhelming flooding at the end of 2009

The EU Floods Directive 2007/60/EC on the assessment and management of flood risks is entering an interesting phase, with member states starting work towards a deadline for the preliminary assessment to identify the extent of flood risk from rivers, the coast, surface water and all other sources by the end of 2011.

Work will then move on to drawing up the actual flood risk maps by 2013, finally establishing flood risk management plans (which must focus on prevention, protection and preparedness) by 2015.

International flood prevention partnerships: The FloodResilienCity project

This project, which is due to finish in 2012, has a wide range of partners including lead partner Directoraat–Generaal Rijkswaterstaat in The Netherlands; Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij in Belgium; the city of Orleans, the Ecole des Ingénieurs de la Ville de Paris and the Département du Loiret in France; Stadtwerke Mainz in Germany; the city of Dublin in Ireland; and the city of Bradford and the University of Sheffield in the UK.

This project aims to integrate the growing demand for more buildings with the increasing need for more and better flood risk management measures in North West European cities sited along rivers. Project objectives cover the four 'As' – awareness, avoidance, alleviation and assistance.

The Floods Directive works hand–in–hand with the Water Framework Directive (see pages 46–47) in that flood risk management plans and river basin management plans are being coordinated, as are the public participation procedures that have to take place during the plans' preparation phase.

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Road to recovery: an additional £330,000 has been pledged by the government to help protect homes in Cumbria against future flooding

The Environment Agency's (EA) national manager for inland flood risk in England and Wales, Steve Cook, notes that the hugely–damaging flooding in Europe was a "wake up call to see the need for there to be a pan–European approach to managing and assessing flooding". He says "We can't always prevent it, but we can manage it."

All member states have been transposing the Floods Directive requirements into their own national legislation, with the regulations in England and Wales entering the statute book in December 2009.

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Stranded: a car is abandoned in a residential area of Oxford, England during the 2007 flooding

Cook explains that the preliminary stage of assessing flood risk for each type of water, which is currently under way "is very much to take stock, using existing information to weigh all the risks across the country as to how significant they are".

International flood prevention partnerships: EFAS

Following the disastrous floods in the Elbe and Danube river basins in August 2002, the EC announced the development of a European Flood Alert System (EFAS). EFAS is capable of providing medium–range flood simulations across Europe with a lead–time between three to 10 days.

The project, which concluded in 2008, gave the EC a forecasting system that provides useful information for preparing and managing aid during a flood crisis. National water authorities benefit from additional medium–range flood information that might contribute to increased preparedness in a flood event. EFAS aims to complement national flood forecasting systems rather than replace them.

The EA has already started work on this process, he adds, explaining that "we hold some big national datasets and we are assessing all of the data we have got". There are two main designated competent authorities (who will compile the assessment) in England and Wales – for rivers, reservoirs and the sea this is the Environment Agency.

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Defence: small scale solutions – such as sandbags – can be used by homeowners

For all other flooding sources the lead is the Local Flood Authority, unitary authority or county council where there is a two–tier system. Recommendations from Sir Michael Pitt's report on the severe 2007 flooding in England and Wales are at the heart of the Floods and Water Management Bill, which received Royal Assent at the start of April ahead of the general election.

International flood prevention partnerships: The SAFER project

The SAFER (Strategies and Actions for Flood Emergency Response) programme involved five organisations – Dublin city in Ireland, Gewässerdirektion Neckar, in Germany, the Forestry Commission Scotland, the Federal Office for Water and Geology, Switzerland and the École Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne, Switzerland alongside the lead partner, the German federal state of Baden–Württemberg, represented by Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart (RPS).

The transnational partnership worked to develop a best practice flooding approach based on an enhanced partnership between the public at risk from flooding and the authorities responsible for spatial planning, flood protection and flood emergency response management.

One of the tools developed between Dublin and Met Eireann, the Irish Met Office, was a tidal early warning and monitoring system. The partners are continuing their activities in European, national and regional projects such as the INTERREG IV FloodResilienCity project.

Legislation will require the Environment Agency to create a national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy, which will provide a framework for a number of organisations to use in their work managing flooding.

The bill also requires lead local flood authorities to create local flood risk management strategies to deal with those sources of flooding that are best managed at the local level, such as surface water flooding.

It introduces a more risk–based approach to reservoir safety management, changes the arrangements that would apply should a water company go into administration, enables water companies to more easily control non–essential uses of water and to offer concessions to community groups for surface water drainage charges.

The last of these points had become a contentious issue, with churches and scout halls fighting substantial hikes in their charges, which led to the matter being added into the Bill during its passage through Parliament.

The Bill introduces important provisions for the approval, adoption and maintenance of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDs). Under the Bill, the Lead Local Flood Authority becomes the body that approves SUDs plans for new developments, ensuring that they comply with national standards to be published by government.

"By setting out the requirements for the adoption and maintenance of SUDs, the Bill should enable SUDs to play a central role in reducing the risk of flooding, particularly from surface water runoff," adds Cook. A mandatory building standard for sewers will also be introduced through the Bill to ensure water companies will have less qualms about adopting them in future. Cook notes that "there is broad cross–party consensus that the bill is needed".

The national manager for inland flood risk in England and Wales believes such an approach to managing flooding is attracting international interest from companies such as Japan, Australia and the U.S.

"Flood risk management recognises that it is impossible to remove all of the risk of flooding, effectively it is about making space for water and to learn to live with the risk," he says. "The approach involves creating flood awareness, preparation, response and recovery – essentially all the aspects that need to be taken into account before and after flooding." Approaches should often recognise the complexity of flooding – that it often derives from a number of intricately–related sources such as rivers, urban runoff, wastewater and highways network surcharges and the sea.

Implementation of the new flood risk regulations requirements are already taking place in some areas known to be at significant risk. The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a number of surface water management plans last year. Whatever local authorities have achieved for this programme will count towards the work required to meet the 2011 Floods Directive deadline.

Construction research body, CIRIA, has also published its final report on another key issue: flood resilience and resistance for critical infrastructure. This is a collaborative research project with engineering consultancy, Arup.

The report provides an overview of the regulatory framework and key challenges facing the water industry.

Flood risk for critical infrastructure is considered with respect to flood risk assessment, implementation of resilience and resistance measures and investment prioritisation.

The report also gives key conclusions and recommendations for both the industry and regulators on further enhancing the flood resilience and resistance of the UK's critical infrastructure.

Based on the findings, research organisation CIRIA is now preparing a proposal to develop a good practice toolkit to help infrastructure asset managers to implement flood resilience for their assets.

CIRIA's project manager, Ben Kidd, says that preliminary work undertaken after the floods in Carlisle in 2005 identified four key sectors – transport, energy, telecoms and water – and also that a significant number of interdependencies exist between infrastructure assets, both within and between sectors. He notes: "There are key themes, for instance the interdependencies between critical assets such as water industry pumping stations, which are heavily reliant on energy and need backup supplies – if these require fuel, how should it be stored, is it safe from flooding?

"Also, there are point assets such as buildings and linear assets such as roads and railways, and the point assets may be dependent on operators to be there, but the operators are dependent on road and rail to get them there. We looked at all these interdependencies and sought to highlight them."

Of the four critical sectors, the water industry was found to be the most advanced, driven by the economic regulator. Ofwat (see pages 53 for a viewpoint from Noel Wheatley, head of environment and water policy) has developed a consistent framework for identification and assessment of critical water assets, which a number of water companies have now implemented. Water companies were required to include indicative costs for building in flood resilience for the recent five–year periodic review as well as existing work on property flooding.

The publication focuses on both existing and new infrastructure and it was concluded that it will be easier to protect new infrastructure from flooding through adoption of existing good practice and planning guidance, such as PPS25 in England (TAN15 in Wales, SPP7 in Scotland, PPS15 in Northern Ireland) than to adapt and upgrade existing infrastructure.

The report also delves into investment prioritisation, which Kidd notes "is going to be key in this difficult economic environment" and gives examples of developing a business case and cost–benefit analysis.

CIRIA is also undertaking a project that aims to provide guidance on retrofitting surface water management – as project manager Jonathan Glerum explains, this will showcase a wide range of advice for those at the forefront of implementing such projects.

Glerum says the project was conceived because there are obvious challenges in fitting surface water management measures into existing developments. The guidance is still in its early stages – CIRIA is about nine months into the project and is about to start work on the first draft.

Glerum explains: "Retrofitting has been shown to be successful in the US and round Europe and the challenge is to now show that it can be done here in the UK. We've found that there are not as many examples in the UK to draw on, but there are a number of successes out there to show it can be done."

This is important, he explains, because people may assume that if retrofitting has not been previously undertaken it must be too difficult to carry out. CIRIA issued a questionnaire as part of the first stage of the project asking a range of stakeholders their opinions on a wide variety of measures.

This ranged from household scale source control measures such as water butts, rain gardens, permeable pavements and rainwater harvesting to larger scale solutions such as detention basins, infiltration trenches, ponds and wetland areas.

CIRIA also canvassed opinion on significant projects such as the use of large retention basins and open concrete channels and some more radical options such as the use of paths, parkland, sports pitches and roads to deliberately channel and contain water.

The results of this opinion poll, the case studies and the literature research will be collated to help inform the final guidance, which will be issued in mid to late 2011. There are significant practical and research efforts across Europe to manage the response to flooding (see boxes), with current thinking focusing on 'resilience' – making space for floodwaters, finding ways to prevent rainfall from entering watercourses too quickly, improving general awareness of the issue and ensuring that communities can recover quickly when flooding does occur.

Increasingly, the message is that flooding cannot be entirely prevented but can be managed, and that ever–larger defences are not a sustainable solution in the face of climate change.

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