December Review

Heavy rain, strong winds and floods sweep across the UK

Dec 29th 2015

Floods have been prominent in the news this month as a series of storms sweeping across the Atlantic has brought widespread flooding to the UK, with Scotland and the North of England bearing the brunt of the weather. On the 7th of December, BBC News reported that Storm Desmond had brought record-breaking rain to Cumbria, leading to flooding in Carlisle and other areas. The Environment Agency has issued hundreds of flood alerts covering all parts of the country, and nine severe flood warnings – indicating a danger to life – are currently in place for overflowing rivers in the north of the UK.

This last week has seen more flooding in Cumbria, which meant that some homes had to be evacuated for the third time this month. This last week has also seen widespread flooding in Lancashire and Yorkshire and hundreds of homes in those areas also being evacuated. The River Irwell and River Roch have both overflowed in Greater Manchester, causing floods in Rochdale, Salford, and Manchester city centre. The River Aire has overflowed in Leeds, and roads in the centre of the city are under water. In York, residents living near the River Foss, where 3,500 properties are at risk, have been advised to leave and 2,200 homes are being evacuated.

“A complete rethink on UK flood defences is required”

Responding to the floods, the Environment Agency’s Deputy Chief Executive David Rooke said a complete rethink of the UK’s flood defences is required. Speaking to BBC News, David Rooke said the UK was moving from a period of “known extremes” to one of “unknown extremes” with regard to the weather. “I think we will need to have that complete rethink and I think we will need to move from not just providing better defences but also looking at increasing resilience,” he said. Improvements to flood warning systems, better building design and better waterproofing would help, he said, and could be vital for tackling future weather extremes.

Innovation: flood warning systems and flood defence technology

The last few years have seen a number of improvements in flood warning systems and flood defence technology, partly due to the practical consequences of government and/or EU-funded research projects, and partly due to entrepreneurs bringing new products to market. The EU has funded a number of flood-related research projects under its 7th Framework Programme – see our news item “EU investment in flood management research” for the details. One such project is the UrbanFlood Project, which finished in November 2012 and was focused on dams and river embankments at risk during a flood. The project uses sensors and related technology to monitor flood embankments and provide an early warning of their risk of failing. The underground sensors monitor changes to water levels and other factors such as temperature, moisture and earth movements. The information is then assessed by the project’s software, which triggers an alert if there’s a problem. The Environment Agency is now incorporating the results of the UrbanFlood Project into its flood defence schemes.

Another innovation that’s now becoming more widely adopted in the UK is the movable flood barrier. Installed in the ground, the barrier rises as the surrounding water rises, such as the self-activating flood barrier developed by UK Flood Barriers. The company says: “The success of the SAFB (Self Activating Flood Barrier) can be attributed to its simple yet ingenious approach to flood defence, using the approaching flood waters to automatically raise the barrier; effectively using the problem to create a solution.”

The last few years have also seen a number of flood-defence innovations at the property level. One such product, now on the market, is a new type of sandbag. ‘FloodSax’ is a lightweight alternative to the conventional sandbag and is manufactured by Environmental Defence Systems Ltd. The bag’s designer Richard Bailey says the idea for the bag came from ‘BlastSax,’ a bag he designed for the Ministry of Defence when he was asked to create an easily portable alternative to sandbags for the army’s bomb disposal unit. The FloodSax bag, though lightweight, expands on contact with water and also absorbs it. The company says the FloodSax bags have helped to alleviate this week’s floods for some residents in the north of England. Another alternative to the conventional sandbag is produced by the company Hydrosack, based in Ireland.

Amphibious homes

In 2010, the Environment Agency produced a YouTube video to announce the launch of a new flood test centre in Oxfordshire, set up by the Agency in partnership with HR Wallingford to test flood defence products against a new industry ‘Kitemark’ standard. Tony Andryszewski, Technical Manager at the Environment Agency, told BBC News in 2012 that he often works at the flood test centre, investigating new technologies. He said the Agency was keen on seeing how other countries approach the problem of flood prevention and control, especially in the Netherlands. Much of the Netherlands lies below sea level and the country is widely acknowledged as having the best flood management technologies in the world. The lead institutions of the UrbanFlood Project are based in the Netherlands, and the flood forecasting software used by the Environment Agency, Delft-FEWS, was developed by the Dutch company Deltares. Tony Andryszewski said the Agency was also looking to the Netherlands for developing the technology of amphibious homes.

Katia Moskvitch, technology reporter for BBC News, said in her 2012 report: “Creating an amphibious home – placing a house on a platform that makes the house float in case of a flood – has only recently been looked at in the Netherlands. In 2005, Dutch firm Dura Vermeer built several buoyant houses in the village of Maasbommel, along the Maas River, about 60 miles from Amsterdam. They rise as the water rises, keeping occupants and their possessions dry. When the floods subside, the houses sink to their original position. The houses float on hollow pontoons made of concrete and timber. All pipes and ducts for water, gas, electricity, and sewage disposal are flexible and keep functioning even when a house rises several metres. Unlike boats, the houses can’t drift away, as they are kept in place by sturdy posts set deep into the ground. Currently, Dutch architectural company Waterstudio is planning to build an entire apartment complex on water, which it says could accommodate hundreds of people.”

When the Environment Agency carries out a rethink of the UK’s flood defences, including increasing resilience and better building design, amphibious homes seem an obvious topic to carry forward.