How can the UK build flood resilience in a changing climate?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

While Australia and the USA are battling extreme heat and wild fires other parts of the world are inundated by rain and battling severe flooding, including communities in the United Kingdom. What needs to happen at the global scale and what can be done closer to home to build resilience against floods in a changing climate? 

Many communities across the United Kingdom are struggling with floods at the moment as a month’s worth of rain has fallen in a few days. 

Flooding is the natural hazard affecting the most people across the world, including here in the UK. The risk of floods is worsening as a changing climate alters weather patterns, which coupled with population growth and urbanisation means more and more people are living in vulnerable areas.

More and worse floods likely to come 

According to the IPCC the UK is predicted to receive about 10% more rainfall per year by 2100 compared to in 1986-2005, and it is likely that this rainfall will be heavier than in the past. 

To combat this it is important that real efforts are made to reach the targets set in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C by halting carbon emissions. World leaders have an opportunity to prove this commitment at the upcoming COP25 in Madrid. 

The role of land use management 

However, increased flood risk isn’t only a result of a changing climate but also of unsuitable land use planning. Between 2001 and 2011, 200,000 homes were built on flood plains, a practice supported by current policy, despite risks associated with such developments. 

Many urban developments don’t leave enough space for so called blue and green infrastructure to better manage rainfall and reduce flood risk. Reductions in parks and other green urban spaces, including the common practice of paving over gardens, means rainwater has nowhere else to go once drainage systems are overwhelmed. 

What needs to be done? 

The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance is a global, multi-sectorial alliance focused on building flood resilience. We work with communities as that’s where the effects of floods have the biggest impact, while conducting research to identify best practice in flood resilience building, and advocating for local, national, and global policies that allow people and communities to thrive despite floods.  

It is vital that investments are made ex-ante, “after a flood is really just before the next flood”, so to reduce the risk of floods turning into disasters, investments are needed now, both in monetary and capacity terms, to build resilience against floods that will happen in the future. This will be nowhere near as costly as what is needed to deal with the aftermath of flooding if we fail to act.  

New developments need to be risk-aware. We shouldn’t be building homes or vital infrastructure like hospitals or schools on flood plains where the risks are well documented. Nature based solutions, like this willow plantation, or this absorbent city, can be used to complement traditional, grey, infrastructure and improve a community’s flood resilience. 

While parts of Europe and Eastern Africa are under water Australia and California are struggling with excess heat and rampant wildfires, demonstrating that messing about with the global climate is a really bad idea.   

In order to cope with the increasingly frequent and intense floods brought on by climate change the focus must be on incorporating this learning into forthcoming plans and action to reduce future loss and damage.

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