When flooding is a lost opportunity

The writing has been on the wall for some time. The latest graffito came in July, when researchers published a study in Nature showing that rainfall in northern latitudes was doing just what climate models predicted – increasing.

The results suggest that human emissions are indeed influencing rainfall patterns – as well as temperature – across the world. The study also confirmed that rainfall has increased in northern mid latitudes over the last 75 years by even more than the models forecast.

The government’s Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) has already warned of increased rainfall across Britain, particularly in summer. And an increasing frequency of extreme weather patterns, it says, are also something we should expect.

So it was that this summer’s floods were not entirely unexpected or an act of God. There was a lesson for utilities on the importance of protecting key infrastructure from floods.

The inundation of Severn Trent’s water treatment works at Tewkesbury left 340,000 people without clean water supplies – an event unprecedented since the war (see pp 32-35  ). About 50,000 people had no electricity, but if National Grid’s Walham switching station had not been rescued, then this number would also have been in the hundreds of thousands.

In the aftermath, the media sought someone to blame – the Environment Agency for poor flood defence planning perhaps, or the government for being miserly with the funding.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn repeated promises for more money and a review of events. There is much to consider, including helping communities to recover and the restoration of roads, bridges and essential infrastructure.

What is missing is a signal to the public that the way drainage has been dealt with in the past is in need of an overhaul. Covering the land with buildings and asphalt cannot endlessly be mitigated by constructing sewers and drains, no matter how large.

Drainage is an arcane topic for most, but one which deserves an airing when the public is receptive to messages about climate change, sustainability and managing water sensibly. It was only last year that the country was gripped by fears of drought.

People need to know that car parks and pavements should now have permeable surfaces to allow water to percolate into the ground, that developments should be equipped with ponds to hold and clean runoff, and that all homes and businesses should consider rainwater harvesting.

Of course, no amount of water butts or permeable paving would have prevented this summer’s floods. But the Environment Department missed a golden opportunity to advertise what will surely form a major part of its new water strategy due in the autumn – sustainable drainage.