Innovation required

With capital flood defence spending being cut by the Government, the emphasis should now be on upstream prevention projects, argues Alex Stephenson.

High priority flood defence projects in England and Wales – in jeopardy following tough spending cuts – need a fresh injection of innovative, lower-cost engineering to avoid future flooding disasters.

The Government has admitted to a 27% cut in capital funding for flood risk management schemes leading to high-profile flood defence projects being shelved indefinitely. There can be little doubt of the huge gap between the Government’s ambitions for flood protection in the UK and the harsh realities of available funding.

That is why the emphasis has got to be on flood prevention, rather than flood defence. Capital flood defence projects are multimillion-pound long-term schemes, whose benefits are shared across a large river catchment area. But the conventional approach has often been to defend against floods on a localised basis where they endanger homes and businesses downstream.

During a specially-called debate on funding for flood risk management on February 9, the environment minister, Richard Benyon, showed interest in exploring upstream solutions as a more sustainable method of protecting at risk communities – for example using forestry planting and attenuation dams to hold back floodwater.

Upstream flood prevention projects are currently under way at White Cart Water to protect the people of Glasgow (WET News, January 2011) and on the River Douglas in Wigan. They are precisely such examples of novel, innovative engineering solutions that provide lower-cost and more sustainable answers to flood protection.

Both schemes use Hydro-Brake Flow Control technology to hold back water upstream and release it at a controlled rate to help protect homes and business downstream. They have delivered an unconventional and highly sustainable out of box solution. They have saved money in construction, operation and maintenance and will create valuable wetland areas.

Until now, flood defence investment has been on an upward trajectory. As a result of climate change we are likely to experience more intense rainfall events in future, and river levels are expected to rise. Meanwhile population growth and increasing developed impermeable areas are putting pressure on our surface water drainage infrastructure.

The Government’s consultation on a new mechanism for funding capital projects based on payment for outcomes and sharing funding with local beneficiaries closed on February 16. Sufficient education and knowledge sharing about the sustainable

solutions available for flood prevention are vital, so that those with the power to make and influence decisions – whether in the Environment Agency, local authorities, consulting engineers and developers, or in universities and institutions – are aware of the full range options.

Encouraging engineering innovation though an at-source principle must be the cost-efficient solution whether for large scale river protection or local surface water management.

With the next major flood only ever just around the corner, innovative engineering in nature’s way must become the mantra of future flood defence planning.

No one can deny that flood defences should bear some of the brunt of spending cuts in the current economic situation. But what should be encouraged is a more sustainable, innovative approach to finding solutions to flood risk issues to make the money go further in future. n

Alex Stephenson is director of Stormwater, Hydro International.

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