Water, water everywhere as flow of history repeats itself

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When the Great Yorkshire Show was cancelled after the first day, the decision was blamed on freak weather. It was exactly the same reason York had to pull a planned flotilla down the Ouse and why hundreds of homes and businesses across the county have found themselves under water.

The problem is that the kind of downpours which turn gentle streams into raging torrents in minutes no longer seem to be one-off events. If this summer has proved anything, it’s that the already unpredictable British climate has just got even more erratic.

June was the wettest since records began and the jet stream blamed for the wet weather shows little sign of moving on. Further rain storms are forecast for at least the next fortnight and the scenes of devastation which greeted the residents of Hebden Bridge are likely to become a familiar sight.

“The flood events of the past few weeks though rare are likely to become more frequent in the future due to a number of factors,” says Geoff Graham, a chartered water and environmental manager. “The impact of climate change, aging sewer infrastructure and reduced investment in flood defences will all take their toll. This is not something which is going to go away. Flooding is a part of modern life.”

This week brought further bad news with the publication of a report by the Committee on Climate Change. Lord Krebs claimed a funding gap of almost £1bn was opening up between what is needed to keep properties protected in the face of climate change and what is actually being spent.

With an increasing number of homes and businesses being built on flood plains – in the past decade 40,000 new properties have sprung up in areas with no community flood defences – the number of buildings facing a significant risk of flooding is also growing.

If nothing is done, the report estimated that by 2035, 610,000 properties will be at significant risk and similarly the Environment Agency has warned that it needs a year-on-year increase of £20m if it is to maintain the current level of protection.

They are the kind of reports which sound warning bells for Graham who saw his own home in Carlisle flooded in 2005 and while it’s impossible to completely mitigate the damage inflicted by the weather, there are steps people can take to reduce the disruption.

“Seven years ago we were really badly hit,” says Graham, whose work takes him across the north of England, including Yorkshire. “Rain started to fall and it just didn’t stop. It was disastrous for many people, however, by noon the following day we were pretty much back to normal. Our only cost was to replace a 30-year-old carpet and we now have hard flooring.”

One would expect a man whose job is to assess the risk of flooding to be prepared, but part of Graham’s work is also about raising awareness about the precautions others can take to protect their property against floods.

“Often in older buildings the floors are highly permeable and water can seep through relatively easily,” he says. “The damage caused can result in major renovation work and if that’s the case it’s worth getting the builder to fit a damp proof membrane.

“Of course there’s a cost which comes with protecting a property against floods, but often quite small steps can make a big difference. For homes that have previously flooded from reverse flow in sinks and toilets anti-flood valves can be fitted on pipes and covers for air bricks and domestic flood gates can be bought relatively cheaply.”

Graham also recommends moving electrical outlets to a height of at least 5ft and avoiding certain types of plasterboard below floor level.

However, emerging unscathed from a deluge is often less about building work and more about pre-planning.

“People need to have a flood action plan,” says Graham, who runs the website www.cumbriafloodrisk.co.uk. “It sounds simplistic, but it can and does make a big difference.

“Often there is not much time when the waters start to rise, but if you have already thought about where you can move your valuables then it means you are one step ahead.

“If you can lift the sofa and the television onto a dining room table it will not only save considerable replacement costs, but will also reduce the risk of damaging irreplaceable items.

“When a house floods it can take up to a year to dry out and even if you are insured it’s a significant financial and emotional burden to bear. Anything that can be done to minimise the damage has to be a good thing.”