Lynne Frostick: We can't stop the storms, but let's try to cut back the chaos

THE floods which have devastated Yorkshire should bring home to all of us a very hard message; namely that the changes in weather patterns that go with climate change mean that we must be prepared for many more and larger storms.

One of the consequences of this is the overloading of our rivers and drains which can cause extensive flooding.

The fact that the climate is changing is now beyond question, and the idea that we and our carbon emissions are playing a big role in this is also widely accepted. Even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether, we would still face decades of warming of our seas and atmosphere. One of the consequences of warmer air and water is weather instability, hence the increase in storminess, and that is an unavoidable fact.

One of the things which really annoys me when natural disasters happen is the suggestion that "somebody must do something about it".

When the cry goes up for more flood banks and more protection against the ravages of rising water levels, the "somebody" at whom the finger is often pointed is the Environment Agency. Indeed, given its current level of funding, the Agency does its best to protect areas most at risk, and especially those with high populations. But little can be done about the historical legacy which places our main towns and cities on waterways and coasts, giving their industries ready access to these main 18th and 19th century transport networks.

Indeed, most of the densely populated areas in Yorkshire sit on flood plains close to rivers, a good example being Sheffield which bore the brunt of the recent floods.

In addition to the historical interests of commerce which account for this fact, many people are drawn to living near rivers because they lend a location an air of tranquility – or usually they do.

There is, however, a bit of a clue as to the nature of these seemingly-desirable areas, and it is to be found in the name "flood plain". Low lying, this is where a river floods when the amount of water coming down from its source exceeds the carrying capacity of the channel. Therefore, anyone living on a flood plain must expect to be flooded when extreme storms occur, no matter what flood defences have been provided.

There are already hundreds of kilometres of flood banks, thousands of kilometres of drains and a whole range of pumping systems designed to keep populated areas of Yorkshire as dry as possible during storms.

Although more investment might mean that more is done to clear the drains, we cannot just build more flood banks. This is because one of the problems of preventing rivers from spreading across their flood plains is that all of the water supplied to the channel moves rapidly down stream instead of spreading out and slowing down, and the risk is therefore increased of the river bursting its banks further downstream. Belated recognition of the crucial role flood plains play in helping to regulate a river's flow means there are now schemes to allow flooding to occur where it does not threaten life and property.

So what else can we do?

The first suggestion I would make is that we must stop building new houses in flood-risk areas right now.

The Environment Agency already advises against this, but many developers and local authorities ignore the advice, largely because targets set by the Government require large numbers of new homes to be built in each area.

If they choose a flood plain, the price of their irresponsibility is paid by the unsuspecting buyer, and in many parts of Yorkshire these are the people who now face months of misery while they try to repair the damage.

I do not blame them for feeling angry. But I would advise anyone buying a house near a river to look at the Environment Agency website which contains flood-risk maps for the whole of the country.

These are good, detailed, maps which allow potential buyers to identify the level of risk in the area they are contemplating moving into and which supply the information needed to make a decision as to whether or not they want to live with that level of risk.

If the answer is "yes", then they would benefit from looking at how people in Venice manage their lives.

Venice is regularly flooded because it is subsiding and the sea level is rising, but the inhabitants have learned to live with this.

During periods of good weather they use their ground floor, but they do not install anything there which cannot be moved quickly. They tile and seal the rooms, raise the electricity supply above the flood level and have a well-developed flood warning system that allows them time to move out of the way before the water invades.

In this way they enjoy their proximity to the sea but avoid the worst effects of what they describe as "aqua alta". If you don't want to follow the example set by the Venitians, do not expect anyone to wave a magic wand and stop flooding from happening: it's not possible.

The only alternative is to move to higher ground, because there is no doubt that the people of Yorkshire who live in low-lying areas will face more floods over the coming decades, and the only answer is either to learn to live with flooding, or to move away.

Professor Lynne Frostick heads the Hull Environment Research Institute.