Science Articles

Learning to live with flooding

Mon, 23rd May 2016

Sam Mahaffey

Flooding in winter 2015/16 caused billions of pounds worth of damages across the UK. In England alone, 16,000 homes were affected, as well as businesses, electricity and communication networks and transport infrastructure.

Meteorologists have hailed the rainfall, which caused the recent flooding, as unprecedented. Storm Desmond contributed to a record breaking month in December, with rainfall and temperature records broken in a number of locations across the UK. Storms Eva and Frank occurred in quick succession and in many cases rainfall fell on already saturated ground.

Floods in Yourkshire

It’s not yet known if climate changed contributed to the severe winter weather. What we do know is that climate change is predicted to cause more frequent and extreme rainfall events in the future. In winter we are likely to see more heavy prolonged periods of rainfall like the storms in 2015. Summer, overall will be drier but there are also likely to be more intense downpours which may result in flash flooding.

Climate change, encroaching urban areas and population increase all contribute to increasing global flood risk.

There is growing need for housing, in the UK and around the world building continues on flood plains. According to the UK government, in 2013/14, 7% of new residential addresses were created in high flood risk areas. As urban areas expand, so too do paving and impermeable surfaces which prevent rainfall from soaking to the ground. During heavy rain, drains and sewers cannot remove water quickly enough and streets and homes become flooded.

Wherever you live, the impacts of flooding can be devastating, but some countries are more vulnerable than others. Poor infrastructure and lack of early warning systems all contribute to higher vulnerability to flooding in developing countries. These countries are also often geographically placed to be more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, and many countries such as in South East Asia, have not developed because of their exposure to flooding and typhoons.


Within developing countries it is often the poorest that are most at risk. According to Claire Grisaffi, a water and sanitation technical adviser from the British Red Cross, the most vulnerable people tend to be marginalised towards the most high risk areas, such as flood plains and the coast.

When flooding occurs, the impacts are not all immediate, as Grisaffi explains.

“People lose their homes and they’re displaced; they also lose all their belongings; they lose access to all the basic services; they don’t have access to clean water; no sanitation, which means then have huge public health risks. The aftermath of flooding in developing countries gives rise to wider public health risks.

There’s massive contamination risks, which means there’s an increased risk of things like cholera. And then you also have stagnant water, which means you’ve got breeding grounds for mosquitos, you’ve got risks from malaria and dengue.”

As the risk of flooding increases we need to find better ways of managing water to cope with this future threat.

Dr Ilan Kelman from UCL explained that through urban planning of streets, houses and infrastructure, we need to learn to live with rivers and coasts.

“There’s no quick fix, there’s not a silver bullet. We simply need to recognise there’s a whole variety of solutions we can take and it really depends on how much we are going to accept being flooded, to what degree, and how frequently.”

Hard engineered infrastructure, although part of the solution, is not adaptable to future risks. Engineered flood defences are designed to withstand certain volumes of water, and flooding occurs once they are exceeded. Barriers and walls are an important line of defence but they cannot sustainably be built to withstand every flood.

Managing water upstream can help to protect downstream towns and cities. Natural features in streams, careful planting along banks and sacrificial storage areas before rivers reach urban areas can relieve pressure on downstream defences. This is just one piece of the flood risk management jigsaw.


Property level protection provides an additional line of defence if flood walls are exceeded. Gates across doors and raised building thresholds prevent water from entering a building to an extent. After this property resilience can reduce the amount of damage caused by flood water.

According to Kelman, property resilience is all part of living with water.

“What we have to do is accept that some houses, some buildings are going to be flooded at times but, construct them in such a way that it’s easy to wash them out, clean them afterwards and then go back and live there.”

In York, the King Arms pub floods regularly and is famed for its resilience. The pub sits on the bank of the Ouse in York’s city centre, an area which has had its fair share of flooding in recent years. Inside, stone floors and easily removable furniture and doors mean that a good wash down is all that is needed to allow the pub to reopen after flooding. They even store the beer upstairs to keep their most valuable commodity out of harm’s way.

Making cities and towns greener places will reduce the risk of flooding from overloaded drains and sewers. Vegetation, parks and ponds which mimic a more natural landscape help rainfall to soak into the ground and reduce reliance on drains and sewers.

Greener cities have wider benefits too, such as promoting biodiversity, making urban areas more pleasant places to be and improving water and air quality. Every little helps, according to Kelman, even making our own properties a little greener can help in reducing the risk of surface water flooding.

“Rather than necessarily paving over front gardens. It would be possible to keep them as plants.”

Individually this may have little impact but collectively we can all contribute to more flood resilient town and cities.

Flooding can be managed better, but in order to do this we need to come round to a new way of thinking. By learning to live with water, we can enjoy rivers and surface water, and the amenity they provide while being better resourced to cope when the inevitable rain comes.

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