Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

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