One of the Environment Agency’s primary duties is to reduce and manage flood risk in England. We do that principally by building and maintaining flood defences, warning and informing people when flooding threatens, and deploying our teams on the ground to protect communities against flooding and help them recover when it happens. So there are no prizes for guessing what I have spent the last few weeks doing. Like most of the rest of the Environment Agency, I have been focused on the devastating flooding we have seen across the country this winter, and on ensuring we’re doing all we can to protect lives and properties. So I thought I would start with a few personal reflections from the last few weeks.
What we saw after Storms Ciara and Dennis was a stark reminder of just how devastating floods are. They kill people, and tragically that happened again last week. They ruin homes and damage lives. And they destroy livelihoods: some small businesses will not survive this latest blow. Every single flooded home or lost business is a personal tragedy, and my thoughts today are with all of those affected.
But in the worst of times you also see the best of people. I want to pay tribute to all the flood-hit communities where people have pulled together with such spirit to help each other out. I want to praise the emergency services and the local authorities, who have done a remarkable job in hugely difficult circumstances.
And I want to praise too the Environment Agency teams who have been working round the clock to protect lives and livelihoods and support the communities which have been hit. Our staff are incredibly dedicated, highly professional, and very good at what they do. There are people alive today who would not be with us but for the work of Environment Agency staff. And there are thousands more people who are today not going through the agony of a flooded home because of the EA’s work. Environment Agency staff don’t think of themselves as heroes, but they are, and the nation is lucky to have them.
My other main impression from the last few days is the sheer scale of what we witnessed. We have had one of the wettest winters on record. That meant that the torrential downpours from Storm Dennis fell on land that was already saturated and into rivers which were already full. As a result we saw almost all the major rivers in England reach the highest water levels on record. The Severn, Trent, Colne, Ribble, Calder, Aire, Wye, Lugg and Derwent all set new records.
This took us into uncharted territory. With the unprecedented amounts of rainfall we got and the rivers so full, it became harder for our teams to model and predict the effects on water levels – critical for the warnings we need to get out and the flood defences we need to operate. They managed, but it was a lot more difficult than it has been before.
The amount of water caused other unexpected problems. We have over 1,000 monitors on rivers which give us real time data on what is happening to the water levels. One EA team was anxiously watching the telemetry data from one particular river which was showing an astonishingly rapid rise when the water levels suddenly appeared to stop going up. The team breathed a sigh of relief until they realised that the graph wasn’t flatlining because the river had stopped rising. It was flatlining because the river had risen above the electrics running the gauge and overwhelmed the hardware.
So as Dorothy says in The Wizard Of Oz, we aren’t in Kansas any more. Welcome to the climate emergency. The patterns of weather we have seen over the last few years – more frequent and more violent storms, much higher rainfall totals, bigger tides on top of rising sea levels, weather bombs like the one that detonated over Wales and the West Midlands last week – these are exactly what the science predicted would happen. Now it is happening and it falls to us to deal with it. How?
Flood defences work
The first point I want to make is this: flood defences work, and we’re going to continue to need them.
We can never protect every single household against flooding. But we can and do protect most communities most of the time. So far this winter around 4,000 properties have flooded. But our flood defences have protected another 85,000 homes from the flooding that they too would otherwise have suffered.
The average household size in the UK is 2.4 people. So this winter our defences have saved over 200,000 people from the damage and misery of flooding. And indeed every time there is a heavy rainfall or a high tide, Environment Agency defences quietly and effectively protect thousands of people around the country, most of whom don’t even notice or need to notice.
Flood defences also work in another sense: they prevent massive economic damage. The flood damage from Storm Ciara is estimated at £97m. But the economic damage avoided to people, businesses, landowners and infrastructure is 17 times greater than that – at around £1.7bn. Flood defences pay for themselves many times over.