England

After the floods: York and Nijmegen - a tale of two cities

A resident of York stands on her doorstep beside a flooded street Image copyright Getty Images

Rain storms battered northern England in December and it's now the turn of the south-west. But should we be better prepared for the floods that have followed this winter's heavy rain? And what can the UK learn from flood defences in the Netherlands?

A review of the UK's flood resilience led by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Letwin MP, will ask if we've got our approach to flood risk right.

Many people in York will have already made up their own minds, as the clear-up around the city continues after widespread flooding followed unprecedented rainfall levels.

The UK government already has in place a construction programme of £2.3bn-worth of flood defences, but most of the towns and valleys that suffered catastrophic floods over Christmas, including York, were not on that list.

A 30-year-old complex built to control river levels in York failed over Christmas, because it leaked.

"I think there's a very good reason for anger in terms of the failure to prove the integrity of the flood defence system," said David Hirst, who sits on the Institute of Civil Engineers Yorkshire region advisory board. "We should be able to rely on it. If we've invested this money in these assets we should be able to rely on them working effectively."

The asset Mr Hirst is talking about is the barrier that separates the mighty River Ouse from its tributary in York city centre, the Foss.

"Unprecedented" rainfall in the catchment of the Foss caught the Environment Agency unaware. The water overwhelmed the barrier's electricity supply and forced the authorities to shut the system down and lift the barrier.

That left the Foss to run free and the resultant flood affected Mr Hirst's office as well as hundreds of businesses and homes in a part of York not used to the floodwaters that occasionally hit the city.

Yet the barrier's weakness was known for more than a decade and it was awaiting a £3m refit.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Parts of York were flooded in December after the authorities had to open the Foss Barrier

Area manager Mike Dugher says the Environment Agency will always have a programme of improving and investing in new and existing defences, but admits: "We can't do it all at once, so it's important we've got that commitment to a continual programme of investing in and improving defences. There isn't a one-off fix that will sort that."

They don't talk about one-off fixes in York's counterpart in the Netherlands either, but they do view flood risk differently and pride themselves on thinking ahead of the water that arrives in Dutch rivers from Germany and Switzerland.

The city of Nijmegen could almost be York's twin. They share not just a river location, but also a Roman and Viking heritage, a similar population size and a thriving University. It is about to put the finishing touches to a 400m-euro (£309m) flood defence project, part of a wider 2.3bn-euro (£1.78bn) scheme along the River Waal, which splits Nijmegen in two.

The Room for the River project on the Waal, which is the name for the Rhine where it crosses the Netherlands, was conceived after a near-miss in the mid-1990s that saw more than 250,000 people evacuated from their homes when huge dykes were in danger of being breached.

Nijmegen's bit of the project, which will be finished this year, is a "mirror" River Waal, a 3.5km (2.2 miles) flood alleviation basin on the city's North Bank that fills up when rising river levels threaten to overwhelm the real river.

More than 5 million cubic metres (177bn cubic feet) of soil and sand had to be dug out to create the channel.

Image caption The Rijkeswaterstaat's Hans Brouwer says the Room for the River project will save hundreds of millions of euros in potential flood costs

Faced with the problem of a bottleneck and a tight turn on the River Waal at Nijmegen, national and local authorities decided to create a space for the river to escape to instead of overwhelming the city. Fifty families had to be re-homed, but the city council turned a negative into a positive by turning the channel into a new water park for the city.

"We have high hopes," said Nijmegen mayor Hubert Bruls. "It's a keen area for people to live in so my prediction is we will experience some economic boom in the years to come. The people are coming and the economy will follow, that's the golden law."

"We invest a lot in the programme," said Hans Brouwer, of the Rijkeswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the Environment Agency. "But if you look at it economically you talk about 300bn euros, if you compare the possible damage. And the higher the damage and the higher the population, the higher the standards."

The scale and hard-engineering of the "mirror" river at Nijmegen would not be an easy fit in York's historic centre, but it is the long-term thinking and grand imagination behind the whole scheme that excites experts in the UK.

Across its other 34 sites across the Netherlands, Room for the River also features more conventional flood defences, such as flood meadows and deeper river channels, as well as the water being allowed to go where it wants to go.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Defra says it has commissioned an in-depth review into flood defences

Some experts think this long-term approach that looks at the whole of a river's catchment, rather than just defending sites piecemeal where floods occur, ought to be adopted in the UK.

"To date the emphasis has been on protecting downstream communities by building big flood defences, but I think we're in the situation now where you can't do that alone," said Daniel Johns of the Committee on Climate Change. "That has to continue but at the same time we need to work at a catchment scale.

"And it's about rolling it out at scale, doing this in every single catchment, particularly in those places which have been affected this winter. The science suggests it's not a matter of these events happen again, but when and where."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was spending £2.3bn to better protect 300,000 homes with 1,500 flood defences, but also said the idea of looking at the whole catchment of a river would be a key part of its 25-year plan for flood protection.

"As we face ever more frequent extreme weather events such as those in December, it is right we look at what lessons can be learned. That is why we have commissioned a proper in-depth review that will give us a chance to look at our defences and modelling to explore new ways of tackling these types of floods in the future," said a spokeswoman.

After The Floods: A Tale of Two Cities will be on File on 4 on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Tuesday 9 January and available to listen to later via BBC iPlayer.

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