Heatwaves, drought, flooding: Is the UK taking a piecemeal approach to climate adaptation?

Pictured: Llwyn-On Reservoir, South Wales, during a previous drought

On Tuesday (26 July), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) made national news with its commitment to creating a new, ring-fenced £100m pot to help homes and businesses in areas experiencing frequent flooding.

The so-called ‘Frequently Flooded Allowance’ should support around 80 flood schemes across communities which have been flooded at least twice in the past decade. The focus will be on preventing flood-related damage rather than stopping floods in the first instance or reducing their severity.

The funding for the pot is being pulled from the Environment Agency’s annual budget. The Agency funnelled £2.6bn into flood schemes between 2015 and 2021 and should receive £5.2bn for allocation on flood schemes between 2022 and 2027. Defra is targeting the delivery of 2,000 flood schemes by 2027, noting that many of the new schemes will need to be “smaller and more complex” due to the geographic location of the most-affected areas.

“While we cannot prevent all flooding, this allowance will help better protect homes and businesses at risk from repeated incidents,” Environment Agency chief Sir James Bevan said.

While flooding may not be top-of-mind after last week’s heatwave, July 2021 saw flash flooding from record rains affecting many parts of the UK, including London. The worst day was 12 July, when 76mm of rain fell within 90 minutes in parts of London, flooding multiple tube stations and leading to the evacuation of hundreds of residents. And, back in 2019, an evacuation was carried out in Whaley Bridge after heavy rain in July and August damaged a nearby dam.

We can expect warmer, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters in the UK going forward, climate scientists are predicting. This increases the risk of flooding inland in all seasons. At the same time, sea level rise and coastal erosion will increase the risk of coastal flooding.

Summer floods are made more likely and more severe when rain lands on very dry land which has a weakened ability to absorb it. Many key UK cities are also poorly equipped to cope due to their Victorian water and wastewater infrastructure.

When rain does not come, there is the risk of drought. The Environment Agency has moved this week to convene its National Drought Group, stating that, while no location in England is currently considered to be in drought, most of the nation is now classed in “prolonged dry status”. This means that the Agency should work with local authorities, businesses and the public to implement precautionary measures to maintain water security. This is particularly important given that the Met Office is forecasting low levels of rainfall for August.

The National Drought Group comprises the Environment Agency, Ofwat, UK and Welsh government, water companies, Water UK, Waterwise, the Market Operator of England’s non-household water use (MOSL), The Consumer Council for Water, the Drinking Water Inspectorate, the National Farmers Union and environmental protection groups including the Angling Trust and Rivers Trust.

All parties were in agreement that “abnormally high temperatures” this season and low rainfall this year have combined to create water security issues. Rainfall in March, April and May only totalled 60% of the long-term average. Rainfall in July was only 24% of the expected level, with the Met Office calling it the driest July in England since 1911.

The National Drought Group was not meant to meet until October, to schedule plans for 2023. The Environment Agency moved the meeting forward and warned that drought may be declared next month. The NFU has called the situation “very serious for growers”, with British crop yields likely to decrease and prices likely to increase.

A national hosepipe ban is likely in August if homes and businesses do not voluntarily consider and reduce their water consumption significantly enough. Low-level comms campaigns are already underway to encourage families to swap baths for showers, shorten their showers and cool water in the fridge to avoid running the tap until the water is cold enough.

A nation unprepared?

The Nature Friendly Farming Network’s chair Martin Lines said: “Many farm reservoirs are getting low and we’re relying on a wet winter to refill them. We’re seeing a huge impact on the new hedges and trees farmers have planted in the past few years for climate mitigation.”

Lines’ statement alludes to a wider issue – that, while the UK is boasting steep emissions reductions since 1990, largely due to action in the power sector, plans for climate adaptation are widely regarded as less developed and joined-up.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) published an in-depth assessment of the UK’s exposure to hundreds of climate-related risks and its preparedness for these risks last summer. The overall conclusions were concerning.  Some 60% of the risks assessed were classed as requiring the highest level or urgency, up from 36% at the last assessment in 2016. No risks had decreased in urgency.

The CCC concluded that the Government was broadly failing to properly quantify and respond to the risks in a joined-up way, reminding policymakers that they should feel more of a sense of certainty that a certain level of adaptation will be needed in the coming decades. It also highlighted how this is an economic imperative, to avoid billions of pounds of annual damage costs, as well as an environmental, social and ethical must-do.

Since that report was published, the CCC has published a specific update for Scotland which was equally critical of the Government’s climate risk response, particularly in regards to adaptation for agricultural land. It has also published another overall net-zero progress report to the UK Parliament, warning of “scant” progress in almost all sectors. And, most recently, the Committee published a climate risk assessment for UK infrastructure, revealing that one-fifth of infrastructure operators are still not disclosing their related risks.

The UK Government published an updated adaptation plan ahead of COP26, but the CCC accused the plans of having loopholes in the first instance and has subsequently spoken of poor embedding.

A more detailed UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) came out earlier this year. The UK Government is required to provide an update every five years, and the last edition came out in 2017. The CCRA isn’t a plan in and of itself, but a resource that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should use to improve their own adaptation policy packages.

The CCRA states: “The UK Government and devolved administrations fully recognise the scale of the challenge of adapting to climate change, as set out [by the CCC]. We have made some progress as the CCC notes, but we must go much further and faster to truly prepare for the impacts of a warmer world.”

It confirms that an updated national adaptation plan for England should come before the next UK General Election is tabled, in 2024. It urges devolved administrations to be at least as ambitious with their own timelines.


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