In the last few months, we have seen devastating and unprecedented floods which ransacked homes, businesses and communities with many rivers across England peaking to levels which had never been seen before.
Each time we see weather events smash through existing records we use the term ‘unprecedented’ but as these extreme events become ‘the new normal’ we must adapt, innovate and work together if we are going to be able to live sustainably alongside the increasing risk posed by our changing climate.
It’s so important to remember that, beyond the figures and strategies, are the human lives that are destroyed by floods. Working with communities who have flooded for the second and third time in 10 years - each time they thought it would be the last in their lifetime, watching them throwing out all their mud encased treasured belongings into the street for rubbish collection and starting the long recovery process is just devastating.
Studies have shown that the trauma of flooding on mental health stays with people for far longer than the raging floodwaters that tear through their homes, with many still suffering effects many years later. These communities are now on the frontline of the climate emergency in the UK.
We can’t stop flooding and we can’t protect every home from every flood but what we can do is use all of the tools which are available to us to sustainably and appropriately manage flood risk across England to try to reduce the severity of flooding when it does happen. It is also vital that we develop resilience to the climate change which is already ‘locked in’, as we must accept that flooding is going to become more common in the future.
One of the essential items in our flood defence toolkit to help us do this, which has been so long overlooked, is nature.
So what are nature based solutions (NBS), also known as natural flood management (NFM) and why are they so vital?
When living ecosystems like peat bogs, wetlands, forests, salt marshes are restored and allowed to recover, they act as land based carbon sinks drawing down carbon from the atmosphere helping to tackle climate change. They also provide a wealth of wider ecosystem services such as slowing and storing water in times of flood, filtering our water and air, increasing biodiversity, not to mention the huge social benefits of access to nature and high quality open spaces.
Most importantly, using NBS underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goals helping us to decarbonise our world, reduce climate risk and support a just transition to a society where we are more in balance with our natural world.
Looking at the whole river system from source to sea and restoring nature at a scale that we have never seen before is an essential approach to how we tackle the climate crisis. One thing is very certain, we can’t just keep building our way out of this crisis with higher and higher walls and embankments in our villages, towns and cities.
We do still need the traditional ‘hard engineered’ defences like embankments and walls to help manage flood risk however, nature has a vital role to play.
If a river catchment has its ecosystem returned to a healthy state this means that it is able to store more water and slow the flow during times of flood. The more this can be achieved by forests, wetlands, peatlands means that the volumes of water hitting defences and settlement downstream is reduced, this builds essential climate resilience in our landscapes and infrastructure to cope with extreme weather.
So how is this NBS approach being applied on the ground?
Across Yorkshire, where I work, I’m really proud to say that we are home to some of the most ambitious catchment scale nature based solutions programmes in the country. These are being delivered in a true collaborative effort.
It all started with one of the original ‘slow the flow’ projects in Pickering, North Yorkshire where water storage areas, leaky dams and tree planting across the catchment helped to prevent the village from flooding in 2015. Since then, work on this approach has grown rapidly.
We are supporting, leading and facilitating work with multiple private, public and third sector organisations, including individual landowners, to build nature-based solutions into our flood risk infrastructure programme.
Across the region, there are collective aspirations to plant millions of trees through the Northern Forest, restore hundreds of hectares of upland and lowland peatlands and blanket bog, wetlands and floodplain to help slow and store the flow of water, sequester carbon and aid nature’s recovery.
This includes the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme which starts in the magnificent limestone hills of the Yorkshire Dales restoring forests and wetlands across a landscape scale encompassing five local authority boundaries to reduce flood risk for communities along the River Aire as far as Leeds city centre.
There is also the internationally recognised work in the Calder Valley led by a phenomenal grassroots community effort from charities such as Slow the Flow, Treesponsibility and the National Trust. This has aimed to work with nature to reduce the flood peak when severe rainfall hits the steep-sided valley by building leaky dams, planting trees and restoring the uplands.
And there is Sheffield’s ambitious NFM programme which starts in the rugged hills of the Peak District at the headwaters of the River Don. It includes restoring wetlands, woodlands, blanket bog and potential beaver reintroduction to hold water in the city’s seven hills, reduce the severity of flooding and provide multiple environmental benefits to Sheffield.
Despite these ambitious schemes, there is still so much more work to be done. It’s a really exciting but challenging time and we are at the beginning of a seismic shift in how we live with a changing climate. The biggest asset we have is working together and building strong multi-agency partnerships across our landscapes that can help make these big picture visions a reality in the face of enormous adversity.
We know we have the tools already and it is now about scaling up and pushing the boundaries on what we think is possible through diverse collaborations to make this happen. No one organisation can do this alone and it’s time to step up the ambition to work together at catchment scale from source to sea to build a truly climate resilient nation where nature and our communities can thrive.
Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated
About the Author
Jenny is a Flood Risk Advisor at the Environment Agency and is part of the team responsible for the delivery of the Yorkshire flood risk capital programme which is one of the biggest flood defence infrastructure programmes in England. She is a Full IEMA Member, Chartered Environmentalist and member of the Yorkshire and Humber IEMA regional network. She has diverse experience in sustainability roles which have involved embedding sustainability into business operations, facilitating behaviour change programmes, global supply chain transparency, organisational emissions reductions, community participative design, engineering with nature, zero carbon principles into construction and infrastructure projects.