Is more funding the answer to preventing future flood disasters?

After the severe floods of last winter, flood prevention has been pushed high up the agenda. After a two month period of evidence gathering, a report on the inquiry into the 2013-2014 winter floods was published in June by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report highlights the need to put policies in place to provide funding and support for homes, farmland and business when they are threatened by floods. However the emphasis is on prevention and the maintenance of flood defence systems, not simply the actions  that must be taken when floods hit peoples’ doorsteps.

In the BES 2013 report on the impact of extreme events, such as flooding, which you can read more about in a past blog post, highlighted the increasing need to invest in natural flood management rather than hard engineering techniques, and sustainable drainage systems in urban areas that can help relieve surface run-off.  In this report from the Committee there is no exploration of the potential of natural flood defences to play a big role in mitigating against flooding. Instead, dredging is still the key focus, despite recognising that this is only one of a portfolio of measures.  They identify cuts in funding, resulting in a lapse in maintenance of dredged watercourses, as one of the major causes of the 2013-2014 floods.  As well as inadequate funding, they say there has been in the past a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the maintenance of certain waterways, whether it be the Environment Agency, Defra, or riparian landowners.

There is a big economic impact from flooding; it is reported that the winter storms caused about £135 million worth of damage to flood defences. However, the Committee’s report claims that the flood defense maintenance budget has been pushed to a “bare minimum” which could result in higher costs further down the line if events like last winters recur.

Internal drainage boards exist in many districts where there is a risk of flooding, and the report suggests they should be empowered to undertake maintenance works on main rivers. In order to reflect local circumstances, the report proposes that local people should be given more say in how funding is spent in relation to dredging. But with water catchments that span across multiple districts and counties, should such decisions be made on a local scale, by potentially uninformed individuals? Surely there is a role here for science to play in providing sound evidence from relevant research into the most effective long term mitigation strategy.

The CIWEM produced a report in February during the inquiry in which they commented on dredging: “Dredging can play an important role in flood risk management in some cases, but is not a standalone solution. It should be considered in the context of a range of tools and the origins of different sources of flood water, and comes with significant risks that must be understood at a local and catchment scale.

Whilst the report recognises that there are “risks associated with dredging, including  exacerbating downstream flooding by increasing the water flow and causing significant environmental impacts such as loss and degradation of natural habitats”, disappointingly there is no attempt to identify other more sustainable options.