Going with the flow; adaptation and resilience in flood risk management

Last winter widespread flooding led to 17,000 properties being damaged - with an estimated £1.3 billion worth of damage caused. With summer over and autumnal weather beginning to make itself felt, thoughts of flooding are back at the forefront of the national agenda.

Despite increasing public awareness of flood risk, and the knowledge that flooding is likely to become more frequent and more severe with climate change, the insurance industry estimates hundreds of thousands of homes in flood risk areas are not protected. A Government report, due to be launched in the coming weeks, will set out a strategy for improving the adoption of property-level flood protection in the UK. At the heart of this strategy is an increased drive towards flood resilience, to complement the more traditional focus on flood defence.

The report’s findings are interesting in revealing the conflicting interests and incentives of the different parties involved in both protecting against flooding and clearing up damage after flood events. Roger Harrabin, writing for the BBC, highlighted how homeowners often feel the Government should protect them from flooding, while the Government would like more properties to take up property-level protection; in effect getting property owners to take more responsibility for their own flood resilience.

Complicating the picture, insurance companies often don’t incentivise home owners to adopt property-level protection through lower premiums, and often don’t allow property-level protection to be installed as part of post-flood repair work under an insurance claim. Underlying all of this is a lack of awareness of both property-level protection measures and individual exposure to flood risk more generally.

This issue goes to the heart of a complex national debate about where responsibility for mitigating flood risk and flood damage sits. By extension, it also speaks to the friction between driving behavioural change by incentivising and giving responsibility to individuals, or through Government mandating change through new regulations.

Hurricane Matthew, which caused widespread devastation as it moved across Haiti and Florida, provides a useful parallel to the current UK debate on flood resilience. After the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Government in Florida introduced much stricter building codes to increase hurricane resilience in the state; these regulations are continually reviewed and updated to make sure they are fit for purpose. In Florida it was recognised that state intervention was needed to drive increased resilience by mandating minimum standards.

Thankfully, the track of Hurricane Matthew helped to minimise the potential damage it could have caused in Florida. However, since 2003 the improved hurricane resilience in Florida has help to mitigate the impact of tropical storm events in general. One option for the UK Government is to drive increase flood resilience in the UK by adopting a similar approach of tightening building regulations and certifying property-level flood mitigation work.

Here at the University of Birmingham we are delivering research to complement the broad flood resilience agenda, which can help to inform Government policy. Recent research at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the Environment Agency and the University of Southampton, has helped to inform the wider debate on flood resilience. Researchers used computer models to explore whether changing land use within a river basin can help to mitigate flood risk in communities downstream.

This research showed the growth of woodlands over parts of a river basin can slow the passage of rainwater into the river network and help to reduce the peak height of flooding. Flood resilience could therefore be improved in some locations by changing land use; particularly when paired with traditional flood defences and property-level protection.

As with the need to change property owners’ attitudes towards property-level flood resilience, changing land use potentially involves complex issues. Current land use could provide a wide variety of benefits to the landowner and society at large, such as food production and recreation. A push to change land use in some areas may therefore need to involve incentivising individual landowners, with grants for example, as well as changing Government policy.

Crucially, decisions on both land use change and property-level protection will need to involve a combination of Government, the insurance industry, local people, and researchers working together to develop an effective flood resilience policy. At Birmingham we hope to continue to deliver the research that will help to inform and frame this debate.

Dr Simon Dixon
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Birmingham