Article - Issue 7, February 2001
Ed Gallagher CBE FREng
The two months before Christmas last year saw the media dominated by news of the worst and most widespread floods in some parts of the country for 400 years. Images of flooded towns, homes and farmland graphically portrayed the economic damage and personal tragedy caused by flooding.
A visitor from another planet, surveying the widespread devastation, would surely conclude that this flooding had happened to a largely unprepared population. But almost £250 million is spent every year building and maintaining defences against flooding. While sympathising with those who have been badly affected, those with responsibility for this flood defence work would claim some success. During the most prolonged and extreme weather imaginable, only 8,000 out of almost 2,000,000 properties at risk in UK flood plains were under water.
However, many properties are now being flooded more frequently. Parts of towns that are prepared for floods every 25 years have been submerged twice in the last 24 months. Some lowlying villages have had homes under water for the third time this year.
Global warming, climate change, inappropriate development in the flood plain and changes in agricultural practices have been given as explanations for the scale of the damage. There is little doubt that our interference with nature has caused many of the problems we now face or, at the very least, exacerbated the effects of a normal cyclical change in weather patterns. Much of this interference was carried out, of course, to achieve worthwhile outcomes – such as land drainage to provide cheaper food – but without always thinking through the environmental consequences, particularly in the longer term.
Flood defences, while significantly reducing the number of people killed in floods from the 350 who died in 1953, have tended to work more by constraining nature than by working with it. Consequently, higher and more robust defences can only be part of the solution. In some parts of the country, walls over 3 metres high would be needed to hold back recent river levels.
But faced with continued disruption and concerns about the insurability of their homes, people are demanding action, not explanations or analysis.
Many environmentalists, seeing their predictions coming true, believe we should reverse the economic progress of the last century to reduce the damage caused by largely unchecked industrial growth, urbanisation and intensive agriculture. They seek a more sustainable world and are right to do so. But they are wrong in thinking we can retreat to some 18th century rural idyll, devoid of economic progress. Industry, science, technology and innovation will continue to fuel economic growth. But they can now provide environmental solutions at the same time – and indeed must do so.
Mitigating the effects of global warming by improved combustion processes, solving the controversy about a role for nuclear energy, leading a drive for energy-efficient housing or doing pioneering work on new methods of water and flood management are but a few of the key areas for engineers to tackle. The Academy has carried out some good work on a more sustainable future, emphasising the business advantages as well as the benefits of an improved quality of life. It now needs to raise its profile in this area and get the environment more firmly on the agenda of the academic and industrial world. The Academy, as the UK’s leading engineering organisation, should take the lead not just for engineers but for the nation.