Lessons must be learnt from catastrophic 1953 floods

Investment in infrastructure must be in line with the threat of rising waters in the face of climate change and increased rainfall, experts have said on the 60th anniversary of the 1953 North Sea floods.

The calls have come at a commemoration held by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

On January 31 and February 1 1953, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Belgium were devastated by some of the worst flooding in recent memory. More than 1,600 kilometers of coastline was damaged and sea walls were breached, affecting 1,000 square kilometers.

Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged. More than 500 UK citizens were killed.

Today rising waters remain one of the UK’s greatest challenges and with rising sea levels due to climate change and increasingly severe and frequent rainfall, the risk of flooding has increased throughout the UK.

CIWEM points out, this week alone nearly 50 flood warnings and 200 alerts have been in place across the country.

ICE vice president and chair of the Inter-Institutional Flooding Group, Professor David Balmforth claimed that coastal regions are now better protected by sea defences, reliable flood forecasting, and well-established emergency response measures, but added that communities had to become more flood resilient.

Balmforth said: “Flood forecasts are not universally embedded in the day to day life of all communities at risk of flooding, and in too many cases, communities do not even realise that they are at risk.

“Our buildings and infrastructure are also not always designed to resist flooding and more can be done to make them flood resistant – in much the same way that we have made buildings more energy efficient. We have yet to learn that building resilience against floods must be at the heart of any future flood risk management strategy,” he said.

The UK’s Environment Minister, Richard Benyon urged residents and businesses to sign up for advance flood alerts.

He said: “We are doing all we can to protect homes and businesses from flooding, and expect to exceed our target to protect a further 145,000 properties in the four years to 2015.”

During the 1953 floods approximately 1,835 people were killed in the Netherlands and 70,000 had to be evacuated. 

Dutch project management and engineering consultant Royal HaskoningDHV’s Frank Heemskerk said that the Dutch had changed their approach in recent years. 

“We now focus on working with water and nature instead of against it. This means creating opportunities by combining multiple functions when designing flood defences,” he said. 

Heemskerk argued that integrated solutions are especially important because the number of people at risk of flooding has increased significantly since 1953 in the Netherlands.

Conor McGlone

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