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Lessons from Storm Desmond: How the natural environment can help mitigate flooding risks

Lessons from Storm Desmond: How the natural environment can help mitigate flooding risks

Hannah Tranter, Project Manager, Natural Capital Leaders Platform

22 December 2015


As Storm Desmond swept through the United Kingdom earlier this month, wreaking havoc in a number of vulnerable, and some defended, areas, we witnessed and felt how exposed and powerless our communities, environments and infrastructure are in the face of violent weather events. The consequences have been substantial: reported fatalities, power cuts to tens of thousands of homes, disrupted services in hospitals, school closures and the shutting down of bridges and travel routes.   

As climate change impacts intensify, so grows the urgent need to mitigate risks associated with weather disasters and their aftermaths. Responding to such a challenge requires action now – and acknowledging the defences that can be provided by the natural environment is a very important first step. 

While today we rely upon traditional and concrete defences for flood mitigation, focus needs to be redirected to the root causes of flooding rather than to its symptoms; there are a number of options that are more sustainable, cost-effective and that, rather than erode with time, safeguard long-term resilience to systems. The natural environment can be more effectively managed to mitigate flooding risks through restoring wetlands and natural dams, replanting woodlands, reconnecting rivers with their floodplains and managing drains. This idea is not new; in fact, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Natural Capital Leaders Platform already started developing this thinking in 2014 as part of its Sink or Swim collaboratory. It highlighted that implementing such measures requires an understanding of how existing policy frameworks can be applied and of how users and stakeholders across the landscape can engage. 

Integrated water management that includes all stakeholders is crucial. Indeed, creating sustainable and resilient systems will require working in partnerships and the efficient pooling of resources. The Natural Capital Leaders Platform produced an Advice Note last year to engage a range of sectors and companies including Atkins, Anglian Water, Asda Ch2MHill, HSBC, Nestlé, Savills, Severn Trent and Thames Water, as well as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Environment Agency. The document brings together various pieces of policy, including the Water Framework Directive (WFD), to explore how developers can work with natural systems and integrate water management approaches into planning and design strategies. 

The Advice Note provides a one-stop-shop to de-mystify water management and is intended to support planners in England in implementing national planning policy in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The note also provides examples of how the NPPF might be applied to manage land and water in a coordinated and sustainable way to balance environmental, economic and social demands at a catchment scale. 

Indeed, an integrated approach to water management should work towards consolidating planning for flooding, water and biodiversity across spatial scales from the catchment through the district to the individual building. Doing so can regenerate communities and provide vital housing while enhancing biodiversity, safeguarding water availability and quality, reducing flood risk across whole communities and improving the public realm. 

The Advice Note highlights how working in partnerships and taking a holistic approach to water management can generate multiple benefits for development and local economies, local amenity, public health and well-being, the environment and biodiversity. For instance, by engaging in catchment partnerships, local planners can influence what happens in other parts of the catchment that has a direct impact on development and growth in their local area. Catchment partnerships can make direct improvements to water quality for enhanced local environments and development potential, and can support the appropriate management of river flows and surface water for reduced flood risks. 

Prioritising today’s water issues, which will only become increasingly volatile in coming years, is necessary for sustaining communities, infrastructure, environments and a number of services, and as the Advice Note suggests, doing so may introduce opportunities for cost savings and ensure good quality urban environments.

About the author

Hannah worked on the Natural Capital Leaders Platform, supporting businesses through improved natural resource management and subsequent business opportunities.  

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.