Flood Management…just leave it to luck?

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Photo taken by Ashley Perkins at Colwyn Bay Dec 5 2013

Our thoughts are with those once again forced from their homes by the sea along the North Wales coastline.

Severe flooding is a part of living in coastal areas such as Rhyl and Kimnel Bay, where the daily routine for householders, and those working in this attractive seafront location, can quickly turn into a life-threatening scenario. Thankfully, severe coastal flooding is rare because, to happen, it needs a coincidence of the highest tides and foulest weather. So, we get accustomed to near misses, and luck saves us.

But, last Wednesday, luck ran out for the north Wales coastline and it all happened again for many residents who can remember the floods of 1990 that devastated Towyn. The result was overtopping of sea defences and another mass evacuation of residents from their homes.

The civil emergencies response to tidal flooding is rehearsed in this part of North Wales, because the risk to life if it all goes wrong is very real. Pleasant seaside locations seem an ideal retirement retreat and a good place to develop tourist accommodation such as caravan parks, but these residents can be at particular risk from flooding.

In our 2009 study Coastal Erosion and Tidal Flooding in Wales, we identified that coastal flooding is often the most dangerous type of flooding, because when the tide rises it threatens the whole coastline and quickly finds a way to spread across large areas of land.

In Wales, around sixty per cent of us live on the coast – where we seek to create the economic activity Wales needs to prosper. What made the flooding last week more threatening was a large storm surge that raised the height of the tide to a point that exceeded the design capability of sea defences and quickly found a way through weak spots. In most cases, it is impractical to consider larger sea defences – the cost and length required is prohibitive, and who wants our wonderful coastline assets spoiled by ugly sea defence walls?

So, having had our flooding event we’ll be ok for the next 20-odd years before the next one? Sadly, this is not the case at all even though flood risk management clearly slides down the priority list between major incidents.

Changing weather patterns suggest more frequent and more severe storms. Scientists expect a global rise in sea levels that alone could eventually cause regular inundation of some coastal land, reshaping parts of the shoreline and making some communities uninhabitable. Unlike parts of eastern England where Wednesday’s storm dramatically showed the widespread vulnerability of the coastline to erosion and flooding, much of the Welsh coastline is rock and high cliffs.

However, there are quite a few areas in Wales where action is required and where communities and commerce needs to work with natural processes, realigning to reduce risks and provide a more sustainable future.

It’s good that the Wales Audit Office has recently focused on both coastal erosion and tidal flooding and, just last year, we published our review of civil emergency arrangements.

I think these are examples of audit work focusing on the real issues of ‘life and death’ for Wales. It’s far more interesting than the usual stuff most people would associate with us auditors. Perhaps if you take a look on our website, you might be surprised at the range of public sector issues we tackle…

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About the Author:

Andy Phillips is a manager in the Wales Audit Office national studies team with a particular specialisation in environmental issues.

Before moving into auditing in 2002, Andy worked as an Environmental Health Officer in several Welsh local authorities and as an environmental protection specialist for Environment Agency Wales.

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