A report released by the Environment Agency (EA) last week highlighted the dangers of flooding in the West Midlands after rainfall in December was exceptionally high compared to long-term averages.
The report was released after Storm Henk hit the region at the start of the month and caused riverbanks to burst. A lot of homes were protected because of current flood defences, but when interviewing retired EA worker Dave Throup, he claimed new approaches to flood defence are needed for the future.
Saturated ground at maximum capacity
Storm Henk should be seen as a warning for the rest of the year. Despite current flood barriers holding back the excess water coming from a burst River Severn, certain areas in the West Midlands were still hit hard, with Worcester notably affected.
The EA report showed that even before the storm hit, most of the soil near the River Severn was already at maximum capacity, because of the unexpected high levels of rain the previous month. This meant that the ground was already too saturated to take in any more water, leaving it all to run into the river.
The increased runoff water was highlighted in December’s recorded river flows, which were also exceptionally high compared with long-term averages. With climate change, changing weather patterns and more rainfall mean current defences which may be working now are not going to last forever.
Throup warned about climate change effects in an interview with the BBC three years ago: “We have had multiple big floods and they are getting bigger and more frequent. The future is very uncertain.”
Flood defences work … for now
Current defences, such as the flood barriers surrounding the River Severn, have been effective in protecting homes. Throup said: “If the flood defences hadn’t been in place on the main communities along the River Severn, large chunks would already be abandoned.”
But building bigger barriers is not the solution for the future. Throup commented: “You can’t undermine the importance of flood defences. This isn’t about abandoning flood defences because they’ve done a fantastic job in my part of the world and without them we would be absolutely buggered, but they are not the solution to future flooding.”
Looking forward, the current defences need to be regularly maintained to guarantee safety for people’s homes, but a new initiative focusing on water management is needed and funding for this initiative is important.
Throup said: “I think – well, I know – what we need to be doing is focusing more on water management throughout the catchment because the only way to future proof this is to slow the water down from much further upstream so it’s not all arriving at the same time.”
One of the ways we could manage the amount of water running into rivers is taking care of the soil. He added: “It’s not all about dams and big pools, it’s about soil health as well, because every percent of organic matter you add to the soil will lead to it holding thousands more litres of water.”
Unfortunately, there is currently not much available funding to look into a new initiative such as boosting soil health. The current barriers and the maintenance of these defences are taking up most of the budget, leaving no free money to allocate to the cause despite the UK government increasing the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management budget.
Government investment spread too thin
The government has been doing well by keeping up with spending to make the country more immune to flood damage.
In 2018, it spent £777mn on the management budget, compared to the £1bn investment made in 2021. Throup said: “In terms of commitment money-wise, I don’t think you can complain.”
What matters is the allocation of that money, as investments could have been made to resource one issue from start to finish, instead of funding multiple schemes and finishing none of them.
He continued: “At the moment that money is being smeared around all over the place and it isn’t going to achieve much, as it needs to be spent on the places that need it the most.
“If you look at the capital they have put in, they have doubled it but bureaucracy and inflation have eaten into that, which has slowed schemes down”, showing that despite the funding increasing, the results are not corresponding.
According to Throup, the money needs to be invested into a new initiative with a focus on water management and curbing the bursting of rivers. He said: “Where the government is failing is in terms of a co-ordinated policy, strategy and money to actually drive the land use changes that are required in certain areas. The longer we leave it, the harder it’s going to become.”