Flood Risk Management #10yearchallenge

By Thea Wingfield, University of Liverpool

The first viral craze of 2019 had already taken hold as fireworks welcoming the New Year lit the sky around the globe. The #10yearchallenge, described by some as catnip for narcissists,  started with celebrities sharing side-by side photos showing that they were beautiful ten years ago, and that they are still beautiful now. I then noticed some of my friends doing the same under the hashtag 10 year challenge. A second wave of posts used the same hashtag to promote campaign messages, sharing then-and-now pictures of shrinking glaciers, or gut wrenching images of worn torn cities in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Over the last couple of months it has been almost impossible to avoid the #10yearchallenge on social media.

The widespread appeal of taking a moment to reflect has been neatly captured by this trend. We enjoy trying to remember what our outlook was and what we hoped for. Congratulating ourselves for goals achieved, lessons learnt and lucky escapes. When the memories aren’t so pleasant, ten years can be a safe distance from which to examine bad decisions and wrong turns. The #10yearchallenge began as a scrutiny of physical appearances, but I have no desire to go through that. Although, the concept of the #10yearchallenge has inspired me. In light of our recent Area paper, we have undertaken a Flood Risk Management #10YearChallenge. Our paper examined how contemporary holistic flood risk management can be delivered by working with natural processes. So what was the picture in 2008? Should we be congratulating ourselves for achieving our goals, or are we working with a legacy of bad decisions?

In 2008 Sir Michael Pitt published a review of the country’s flood management following the widespread devastating summer floods of 2007, which represented the largest peacetime emergency since World War II. The Pitt review generated a total of 92 recommendations calling for “urgent and fundamental changes” for the country to adapt to the, “likelihood of more frequent and intense periods of heavy rainfall”. Under the heading “Reducing the Risk of Flooding and its Impact”, recommendation number 27 called specifically for flood risk management to work with natural processes. Whilst not the first document to do so, the Pitt review was an early and influential statement of intent for flood risk management to consider options beyond a total reliance on hard engineered flood defences. To realise such an ambitious change required much greater collaboration and stricter controls between urban planning, water companies, and flood and coastal risk management. Our review in 2018 drew similar conclusions with the addition of the agriculture and conservation sectors.

Fast forward 10 years. Is government embracing the recommendations of the Pitt review? Have we gained 10 more years of knowledge and practice? In November 2018 Michael Gove made a speech on the UK Climate Change Projections in which he discussed food risk management as being one of the principle threats to the UK from a changing climate. He goes on to discuss what he calls “new philosophies” of making communities more resilient to flooding, which requires a move away from a total reliance on hard engineering. Thanks to the ten year challenge we know that there is nothing new in this aim. If you were to position Michael Gove’s speech side by side with the Pitt review in the style of the #10yearchallenge there are many similarities. Ten years ago a more diverse flood risk management strategy was called for and ten years later that call is still being made. One ominous difference is that while the Pitt review identifies urban planning and building regulation as having a significant role to play, Michael Gove appears to willfully ignore this crucial piece of the puzzle. Instead his picture has agriculture and upland land management as carrying the burden for a countrywide adaptation to more frequent and intense rainfall. What we have shown in our Area paper is that there are opportunities to work with natural processes across the catchment from urban areas in the lowlands to rural areas in the uplands and everywhere in-between.

Catchment‐wide NFM interventions categorised as the initial step in the hydrological cycle. Interception: A1 bunded ditches, A2 vegetative cover, A3 green roofs and walls, A4 interception ponds, A5 managed realignment, A6 rain gardens, A7 restoring peatlands, A8 swales, A9 beach nourishment, A10 habitat promotion, A11 reef creation. Infiltration: B1 woodlands, B2 filter/buffer strips, B3 hedgerows, B4 managing soil quality, B5 no and low till agriculture, B6 permeable paving, B7 reduced stocking density. Water storage: C1 ponds, C2 rainwater harvesting, C3 reservoirs, C4 wetlands and reed beds. Channel flow: D1 de‐culverting, D2 increase channel roughness, D3 regulated washlands, D4 remeandering, D5 restore functioning floodplain, D6 setting back flood defences, D7 woody material dams, D8 species reintroduction (e.g., beavers). Each intervention uses a number of hydrological processes to slow the flow of water, for example interception, infiltration and water storage in wetlands and surrounding vegetative cover will result in reduced surface run‐off. Source: Wingfield et al.

So why is our move away from a reliance on hard engineering still being discussed as a future ambition? Why have we not adopted the recommendations of ten years ago and implemented catchment wide integrated flood risk management? One reason could be that it is very difficult to measure the natural processes involved. The research agenda is dominated by approaches commonly used in the natural sciences, which focuses resources on efforts to increase the evidence base and tests our computational skills rather than the resilience of the hydrology system. We have found that there is not the same research effort into translating policy into practice, particularly in identifying existing forums that can be utilised to encourage wider delivery. The geographical sciences are well placed to bring together the interdisciplinary thinking required from both the physical and human traditions.  Our paper has found that the catchment based approach (CaBA), initially established in 2011 in response to the challenges of delivering the Water Framework Directive, also advocates for an approach to the delivery of flood risk management that harnesses natural processes. Furthermore, the sectors that are needed to collaborate are identical. Therefore, an opportunity exists to utilise established catchment partnerships. If CaBA is supported through research into the mechanisms of delivery, a future ten year challenge could be reflecting on the changes that have been achieved in a decade rather than still describing identical policy ambitions.

About the author: Thea Wingfield is undertaking a NERC-CASE funded PhD in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool.


BBC (2019). 10 Year Challenge: How the world has changed in a decade

Crace, J. (2019). The 10-year challenge is catnip to narcissists. Speaking of which … The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Wingfield T, Macdonald N, Peters K, Spees J, & Potter K. (2019). Natural Flood Management: Beyond the evidence debate. Area. 1–9.

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