Construction Corner - How to stem the next big flood tide?

0 79 Infrastructure

by Korky Koroluk last update:Sep 3, 2014

The flooding that hit England in January and February this year has led to a lot of soul-searching in the flood-prone areas, as people contemplated the immense clean-up required.
Korky Koroluk
Korky Koroluk

The flooding that hit England in January and February this year has led to a lot of soul-searching in the flood-prone areas, as people contemplated the immense clean-up required.

Some were also contemplating the next big flood.

I haven’t seen a figure yet for the cost of the floods. Claims are still coming in.

But, they are already getting calls for an open discussion about what measures might be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future, and what those measures might cost.

Now, for the first time, governments in some areas are beginning to talk about what for years has been unthinkable: It may be necessary simply to withdraw from the sea and let it claim the abandoned land.

England has always been a damp country.

Its rainy climate and many low-lying areas have meant that flood defences have had to be built in the past.

But, large areas remain unprotected, vulnerable to the next big flood which is surely coming.

The Committee on Climate Change, an independent group, has said that, besides money already allocated for flood control, a further 500 million GBP ($922 million Canadian) is necessary over the next four years.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s response was to warn that there is a limit to what the public purse can spend.

In other words, there is likely to be some additional spending, but not 500 million.

So what to do?

There is a plan called the River Thames Scheme, approved two or three years ago, that would feature a new flood diversion that would reduce the risk of flooding to about 20,000 properties upstream from London.

But, the plan is still on the drawing board and full funding isn’t in place.

Right now, it looks like construction won’t start for six years yet, and would take five to six years to complete.

The plan also calls for improvements to the Thames Barrier—huge floodgates built at the river’s mouth to protect London, just upstream.

But, those improvements are even farther in the future.

So even if everything were to fall into place, the additional protection the Thames scheme would provide won’t be in place for more than a decade—or two.

Around the estuary of the River Blyth, northeast of London, regional authorities decided five years ago to abandon flood defences.

Waters from the English Channel would be allowed to flood in, creating saltwater marshes, although some land would still likely be suitable for grazing livestock.

Across the country, in Wales, a similar plan is being drawn up after officials were told that 135 million GBP per year would be needed—not to prevent coastal flooding, but simply to keep the flood risk from increasing.

And at Medmerry, on the Channel coast near Portsmouth, an inland sea wall has been built.

Everything on the ocean side would become wetland.

Complicating things is the inexorable rise in sea levels. In the English Channel, the rise has been 12 centimetres in the last century and the rate of rise has been accelerating. Another 16 cm is expected by 2030.

The entire area around The Wash, a shallow inlet on the east coast, is at risk from rising sea level and storms.

So is the area around York, in the country’s north.

Whatever course governments in England choose, simply reverting to old ways is not an option, and the country now has prominent planners, hydrologists and engineers speaking out, trying to start the conversation that’s so desperately needed.

We could use such a conversation here in North America. Hurricane Sandy in New York City, intense flooding in Colorado and Calgary/High River in June, and record droughts in California and the American southwest should have us all talking about the climate threats we’re likely to face, and what we might be able to do about them.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

last update:Sep 3, 2014

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