Wed, Feb 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Flooding — a British disaster waiting to happen

We know floods kill, wreak havoc and cost billions. We also know they are coming. So why are relevant authorities and homeowners not doing anything about them?

By Fiona Harvey  /  The Guardian

That makes it even more vital to ensure that our essential infrastructure is resilient to the floods we know are going to hit us. In 2007, the lack of contingency plans for the water networks meant the army had to be called in to distribute bottled water and beer tankers pressed into service to carry water. Acting under emergency conditions in this way is stressful and very expensive, yet little seems to have changed in the past five years.

“There is not yet a lot of tangible action,” says Krebs, author of last year’s Committee on Climate Change report. “There needs to be partnership on this between the public and private sector.”

Brian Collins, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is an expert on infrastructure. He is quite clear that the UK is in serious danger of losing vital services to flooding, with potentially disastrous consequences.

“There is no obligation on companies to protect this infrastructure against flooding,” he says. “Companies can choose not to.”

The Environment Agency insists that it is taking action, with “local resilience forums” that bring together emergency services, infrastructure providers and local government.

However, Collins is skeptical: “Utilities have to produce contingency plans for how they would continue in a crisis, but these do not include having to build in resilience to flooding. They should do. That should be part of the regulation.”

There is evidence that the coalition is pulling back from stricter regulation. Sebastian Catovsky, an expert on adapting to the effects of global warming at the Committee on Climate Change, says the obligation for key infrastructure companies to set out reports on the risks they face and how they plan to deal with them is being downgraded to a voluntary measure.

“With a voluntary approach, you have no stick to ensure the companies are looking at this,” he says.

In 1953, atomic power was still in its infancy. Today, there are nine nuclear power stations around the UK’s coastline and plans for up to twice as many. Flooding is one of the most serious hazards for nuclear plants, as Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan demonstrated. Greenpeace commissioned a report from Colin Green, of the flood hazard research center at Middlesex University, into Hinkley Point, likely to be the site of the first new nuclear plant to be built in the UK in decades.

“From a flood risk management perspective, Hinkley Point is not an ideal site for a nuclear power station; the material presented by [energy, power and gas supplier] EDF is inadequate; and it is not possible, on the basis of the material presented, to reach a rational decision as to whether Hinkley Point can be made to work from a flood-risk management perspective,” it concluded.

EDF says it has thoroughly examined all the risks and that the plans are watertight.

It is the infrastructure companies themselves that will ultimately suffer when their assets are damaged by adverse weather. They ought to have a vested interest in protecting their investments. However, so far the power companies, water utilities and railways have failed to do so, according to Collins. The reason? Privatization.

“All these services used to be in public hands, but when you privatize them, you turn them into companies that put profit first — that is what companies do. But markets do not handle extreme events very well,” Collins says.

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