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Thursday, 12 October, 2000, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Turning back the tide

Once again serious flooding has brought havoc to a corner of the UK. But, with the number of floods set to rise, what is being done to protect homes and businesses?

There's nothing imagined about it - scenes of severe flooding around Britain are becoming increasingly familiar.

As parts of southern England battle with the worst floods in living memory, scientists say we should brace ourselves for a lot more of the same.

Summer thunderstorms are set to increase
The effects of climate change mean Britain is increasingly at risk from flooding, says the Environment Agency.

It estimates that changing climate patterns in the UK will eventually mean a 10% increase in annual rainfall, wetter winters and more summer thunderstorms.

Coupled with this is the risk posed by rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Southern England is said to be sinking by six millimetres a year.

The result is that millions of homes and businesses are increasingly looking to flood defences to save them from ruin.

A report published this summer set out the scale of the potential risk.

Maybe the cross-Channel hovercrafts could be bought back into service
Researchers working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - which funds flood defence schemes - found more than 1.7 million homes and 130,000 commercial properties in England are at risk from flooding.

It means between four and five million people could be affected.

The government spends about 200m on flood and coastal defences annually - 110 to 120m on capital works and 80 to 90m on maintenance.

The MAFF research found that up to 170m more is needed just to keep up with the current standards of defence.

Various defences

Flood alleviation systems take many forms, ranging from structural defences to flood plains.

Structural devices come in many forms, including man-made river embankments, and storage reservoirs which are designed to release excess rainfall when river levels have fallen.

Flooding in England
Capital at risk: 214bn
1.3m hectares of agricultural land at risk
This includes 61% of total Grade One land in England
Without defences annual economic damage would be 3bn
Source: Appraisal of Assets at Risk from Flooding and Coastal Erosion report, June 2000
In England and Wales, responsibility for implementing and maintaining flood defence schemes rests with the Environment Agency.

While it is building new defences, much of its work and budget is taken up replacing old and ineffective structures, says Colin Green, of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University.

In 1998 the agency was seriously criticised for its slow response to floods earlier that year which deluged thousands of acres in central England and Wales and left five people dead.

Better warning

Since then it has worked hard to claw back credibility. It improved its flood warning system and has tried to raise awareness of risk with campaigns such as last month's Flood Action Week.

Road sign
Increasingly a sign of the times
Yet while man is attempting to combat the effects of nature, he has also contributed directly to the increased risk of flooding in the UK, through widespread development.

The problem is simple - while earth absorbs rainfall rather like a sponge, concrete certainly does not.

"As soon as you build on something you increase the amount of rain that's turned into run-off, which will contribute to flooding," says Mr Green.

"In London we are all busy tarmacing over our front gardens to make space so we can park our cars. But this sort of thing contributing to the problem of run-off," says Mr Green.

Millions of new homes

The "concreting" of Britain shows no sign of abating. The government expects 3.5 million new homes to be built in England over the next 21 years.

In places such as Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, new homes are currently being built in areas that, historically, are known to have flooded.

"Shewsbury-on-Sea" - No flood defences in our backyard, thank you
Urban dwellers will also be at risk. Much of the planned development will be on brownfield sites that currently serve as inner-city flood plains, says Mr Green.

More and more, developers are being forced to factor in their own flood control methods at the building stage. And science has sprung some interesting solutions, such as permeable paving stones designed to soak up water.

But despite the chaos and damage caused by floods, not everyone is behind defence schemes.

English Nature claims the sea defence network is crushing coastal wildernesses, while to some people at least, the trauma of flooding is outweighed by aesthetic concerns.

Both Shrewsbury in Shropshire and Bewdley in Worcestershire rejected flood defence walls on the grounds they would spoil the look of the towns' riverside areas.

Then, in 1998 both towns suffered their worst floods in 30 years.

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