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Managing the risk of surface water flooding

Research by the University of Oxford, in conjunction with the London School of Economics, is playing a key role in combating one of Britain’s most persistent natural hazards.

Photo by northallertonman / Shutterstock

Photo by northallertonman / Shutterstock

Recent years have seen torrential rain cause widespread flooding in the south west, the Thames Valley and Cumbria. Few places, it seems, are safe from one of Britain’s most persistent natural hazards, but effective action can make a difference, managing the extent of flooding and reducing its impact. Dr Katie Jenkins, a researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, has been integrally involved in a novel analysis of the implications of surface water flooding for flood insurance, offering significant new insights for improving flood risk management efforts in the UK.

Working on an EU FP7 project called ENHANCE, in collaboration with the LSE, Dr Jenkins has been investigating the economic effect of surface water flood risk, and the role of climate change, on Greater London. In particular, with LSE senior research fellow Dr Swenja Surminski, Dr Jenkins has focused on the role of insurance in risk management. Their work points to better ways of aligning flood insurance and flood risk management efforts – an aspect that is currently missing from the existing and newly proposed flood insurance scheme.

‘Our research investigates the UK flood insurance scheme, which is based on a partnership between the public and private sector,’ explains Dr Jenkins. ‘We assess the relative merits of household and community risk reduction measures, using an agent-based model to factor in perspectives from a number of different stakeholders. The aim is to foster greater resilience to flooding by utilising flood insurance.’

The methodology used by Dr Jenkins and Dr Surminski can be replicated for nationwide studies – and it informed discussion of Flood Re, an innovative insurance scheme to provide affordable flood insurance for the 350,000 to 500,000 homes in the UK considered to be at significant risk of flooding.

‘Flood Re is a not-for-profit approach to insuring high risk households against flooding,’ says Dr Jenkins. ‘It exemplifies how the UK is transitioning towards a new flood insurance arrangement.’ The research undertaken by Dr Jenkins and Dr Surminski has been cited by the Bank of England in a report on the impact of climate change on the insurance sector, triggering extensive stakeholder debate. Furthermore the researchers are currently engaging with Flood Re to advise on how best to utilise Flood Re in the overarching efforts to address flood risk in the UK.

Giorgis Hadzilacos from Willis Re, one of the key specialist advisors regarding the Flood Re scheme, said:’the research by Dr Jenkins has shed light on some of the Flood Re project’s unanswered questions, meaning that insurers are better placed to understand the impact of the scheme and consequences under future climate change.’

Research funded by: European Funding

Related links

ENHANCE
Dr Katie Jenkins

Water Security: less talk, more action

andrew-hamilton-oxford-university

Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University © REACH

Water security is an increasingly urgent and complex challenge facing society, both rich and poor. Over 200 people from 20 countries met to debate using a risk-based framework to respond to the global and local challenges at the Water Security 2015 conference held at Oxford University on 9-11 December.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, welcomed Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya who led discussions on the significance and shared challenge of water security for countries in Africa and Asia.

‘Water security is an issue of life or death for Bangladesh’ said Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning. The country’s population, especially the poor, are highly vulnerable to water hazards, including frequent floods, droughts and arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

The World Bank and Oxford University presented new evidence on the global status of water security risks, showing the scale, urgency and cost of the challenge. Findings from the OECD and Global Water Partnership report ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’ provide the economic rationale for investment in infrastructure, institutions and information.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University said: ‘investment finance needs to have a sense of where the priorities lie. We have developed a common language to look at the scale of the risk, evaluate the benefits of risk reduction, and make proportionate interventions and investments in water security.’

The conference continued with a focus on water security and poverty in Africa and South Asia, marking the first year of REACH: Improving water security for the poor. The programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), with a £15 million investment in water research. DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Charlotte Watts, flagged the programme as critical to providing robust evidence needed for designing and implementing water security interventions.

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Gaining government support will be key for REACH to bring about transformational change beyond its focussed ‘Water Security Observatories’ or study sites. Attendance from three State Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya – the countries where REACH works – was an important step in building these science-policy partnerships with senior academic, enterprise and policy collaborators.

Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia, shared his country’s vision: ‘It is my Government’s ambition and commitment that all Ethiopians especially women and children have a future where they can live, learn and grow without the burden of water insecurity both in terms of water quality and quantity.’

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

The Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Kenya, Mr Eugene Wamalwa, spoke of unprecedented floods taking place in his country. Referring also to recent floods in Cumbria in the UK, he said that water is a global issue that connects us all. He tweeted with enthusiasm about his support for REACH and willingness to work in partnership to find new solutions to water insecurity.

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Mr Sanjay Wijesekera, Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at UNICEF, highlighted the drive towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The need to address inequalities and target the poorest and most vulnerable is a priority across the SDGs, and in UNICEF’s work, he said. UNICEF is a global practitioner partner in the REACH programme with strong collaboration across regions and countries in Africa and Asia.

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Three Country Diagnostic Reports on Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya were launched at the conference. The reports illustrate significant but complex interactions between water security risks and poverty. Each Country Diagnostic Report outlines Water Security Observatories where REACH will focus its work over the next seven years.

Speakers from a session on ‘engendering water security’ showed how gender is a thread that weaves its way through all water security issues, from disasters, to water supply and sanitation, water management and technologies, and climate change resilience. The different values, needs and uses of water by men and women, and boys and girls, must be considered, to ensure that policies are effective. Eight parallel sessions convened panel discussions by senior policy, academic and enterprise leaders on issues of finance, monitoring, climate, poverty, health, data science, political accountability and groundwater.

In final remarks, REACH Director Dr Rob Hope said: ‘REACH will generate outstanding science to support policy and practice to improve water security for millions of poor people. The focus is on research with purpose and not producing academic papers that will gather dust.’

A call for partnerships and action was crystallised with the launch of the REACH Partnership Funding.

Presentations, audio and video will be available on the conference website soon – www.watersecurity205.org.

See the social media summary of the conference on Storify

Conference photos

Unavoidable increase in flood risk with 4°C climate change

A new report finds that significant additional investment and adaptation action will be needed in the UK to counter flood risk projected under a 2°C rise in global mean temperatures. But if temperatures climb by 4°C, a large increase in flood risk will be unavoidable. 

Climate-Change-Risk-Assessment-2017-250x350The research, led by Paul Sayers, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, warns that even the most ambitious adaptation scenarios will not be able to avoid the effects of 4°C on UK flood risk. Long stretches of current coastal flood defence structures in England will become highly vulnerable to failure as sea levels rise, making it increasingly more difficult and costly to manage the risk of widespread coastal inundation.

The report was commissioned by the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change who has been asked by the Government to lead the next UK Climate Change Risk Assessment. An Evidence Report will be published in July 2016, before the final Government report is presented to Parliament in 2017.

Read the report

 

Flood risk: making better infrastructure investments

Researchers at the Environmental Change Institute are helping evaluate and communicate best practice in national-scale flood risk analysis and long-term investment planning for flood management.

Thames barrier © Jack Torcello

Thames barrier © Jack Torcello

The FoRUM project – Flood risk: Building Infrastructure Resilience through better Understanding and Management choices – recently held two workshops to start a dialogue between scientists and stakeholders that make use of flood risk science in their work.

Paul Sayers, leading the project, explained: ‘understanding and assessing risk is a prerequisite to managing it. The ability of alternative investment strategies to reduce risk – at a regional, national or even international scale – presents particular challenges.’

The two workshops helped identify these challenges, compare alternative approaches and distil lessons from across different sectors.

The project has engaged academics and industry partners from the UK and Netherlands (including the Environment Agency, Network Rail, Rijkswaterstaat and Thames Water), as well as leading consultants from the flood and reinsurance sectors.

At the first workshop ‘Broadscale risk models’ stakeholders and researchers took an in-depth look at current methods for modelling national-scale flood risk. A second workshop aimed to get stakeholders up to speed on the most recent advances in planning long-term investment in infrastructure.

There are many different types of infrastructure that help reduce the damage caused by flooding; physical structures such as embankments and floodgates, as well as ‘natural infrastructure’ such as introducing greenspaces or managing beaches. A key challenge for water utilities and government agencies is deciding what investments to make, given uncertainties related to future flood risk.

While there have been significant developments in the last decade in how decision-makers address future uncertainty in investment planning, current practice still lags behind the latest thinking in academia. The FoRUM project is a significant step in bridging this gap.

The findings of these workshops are already influencing the future development of the tools used by the Environment Agency to support its Long Term Investment Scenarios (LTIS). Dr Jon Wicks, CH2M HILL, who is leading an Environment Agency project to scope the next generation LTIS tools, said: ‘the FoRUM workshops have been very helpful in highlighting alternative approaches and how they might be taken forward into practical application.’

The project is led by Paul Sayers and Jim Hall at the Environmental Change Institute, with support from Edmund Penning Rowsell (School of Geography and the Environment) and Rob Nicholls (University of Southampton). It is funded by Natural Environment Research Council’s Environmental Risk to Infrastructure Programme (ERIIP).

Presentations from speakers at the workshops are available to download via the links below.

Visit the FoRUM project webpages
See presentations from FoRUM Workshop 1: Broadscale risk models, Tuesday 17 March 2015
See presentations from FoRUM Workshop 2: Long term investment planning | Tuesday 5 May 2015

UK Government warned to take urgent action on climate change

A new set of reports by the Committee on Climate Change calls for urgent action by the UK Government to avoid the increasing costs and impacts of climate change.

Climate Change ReportProfessor Jim Hall, Director of the ECI, sits on the Adaptation Sub Committee and was involved in the adaptation report, which comprises the first statutory assessment of the UK’s National Adaptation Programme. The assessment revealed a number of risks which need to be addressed by government, including an increase in the number of homes at risk of flooding, despite extensive spending on flood defences; and the threat posed within the next generation from rising temperature on the UK’s farming.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, commented on the report saying: “This Government has a unique opportunity to shape climate policy through the 2020s. It must act now to set out how it plans to keep the UK on track. Acting early will help to reduce costs to households, business and the Exchequer. It will improve people’s health and wellbeing and create opportunities for business in manufacturing and in the service sector.”

Read the full set of reports on the Committee on Climate Change website

Article from the Environmental Change Institute website

New EU project on coastal hazards and an Oxford ‘Think-Shop’

Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Distinguished Research Associate at the School of Geography and the Environment, is managing a new research and knowledge transfer project to better protect society from coastal hazards.

coastal-hazards

The EcosHaz project will develop a framework to assess the costs and benefits of prevention and response to coastal hazards such as flooding, shoreline erosion, storm surges, sea level rise and oil spill accidents.

Until now, investment decisions in Europe in this field have been based more on local or regional political agendas than logical risk assessments.

Professor Penning-Rowsell, also Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University said: “Coastal hazards are a major concern for authorities and populations as they can have severe impacts on the economy as well as the health and safety of people. The project will provide state of the art guidance on assessing the costs and benefits of risk prevention measures, compared to the costs for response and rehabilitation. This will enable decision-makers to make sensible choices based on sound evidence.”

The project team will train up personnel in coastal authorities and their consultants or advisers, so that they can adopt economic assessment tools in their work and reduce the damage caused by coastal hazards.

Partners within the consortium are: Sigma Consultants, Greece; the University Pablo de Olavide, Seville, Spain; the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, UK; the Maritime Institute in Gdansk, Poland; the Department of Economic Theory at University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the Università degli Studi di Catania, Italy.

A ‘Think-Shop’ (the antidote to the proverbial “Workshop”) will be held in Oxford on 7 October 2015, to brainstorm coastal protection and conservation issues. Those interested should contact Edmund Penning-Rowsell at Edmund@penningrowsell.com.

Visit the EcosHaz project website

Ecoshaz

eac logo

Project co-funded by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.
The sole responsibility of this communication lies with the author.
The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information therein.

 

 

Report shows how water insecurity is a drag on the global economy

A new report shows floods, droughts and a lack of investment in providing good quality, reliable water supplies is dragging down the global economy. The report, published today and entitled ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’, was written by an international Task Force chaired by Claudia Sadoff and co-chaired by Professors Jim Hall and David Grey from the University of Oxford.

cover with borderThe Task Force was established by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report and new scientific analysis examines not only water’s destructive force but also how it contributes to human health and prosperity. It was launched at the start of the Seventh World Water Forum in South Korea, the international summit at which the world’s water challenges are addressed.

The report draws on research led by the University of Oxford and feeds into a policy statement released by GWP and OECD calling on governments to invest in strengthening the world’s institutional capacity to manage water security, with much improved information systems and better water infrastructure. It urges that special attention be paid to social risks, with a focus on vulnerable segments of society.

According to the report, South Asia has the largest concentration of water-related risks. East and Southeast Asia face rapidly increasing flood risk, although the United States has the greatest exposure to flood risk. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the risks of inadequate water supply and sanitation are rising. North Africa has the greatest percentage of population at risk of water scarcity.

The international Task Force is comprised of leading academics, researchers and practitioners from around the world.

Claudia Sadoff, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Change Institute, said: ‘Both our empirical and theoretical analyses demonstrate the importance of investment in water security for development and the importance of development for investment in water security.’

‘Effective ways of achieving water security involve combinations of investments in information, institutions and infrastructure’, says Professor Hall, report co-author and Director of the Environmental Change Institute. ‘Not all investments have been beneficial or cost-effective. Investment must be designed to be robust to uncertainties and to support adaptive management as risks, opportunities, and social preferences change. All of this will require refined analytic tools, innovation, and continuous monitoring, assessment, and adaptation.’

Report co-author and Visiting Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, David Grey said: ‘Our analysis shows that the countries that depend on agriculture for their economies are often the worst affected by floods or water scarcity. Some countries will need to think about how they can diversify from an agriculturally focussed economy to one less dependent on water. They will also focus on how better use can be made of the limited water supplies available to them.’

Read the report
Read the GWP news release
Water insecurity costs global economy billions a year, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015
Water insecurity costing global economy billions, Japan Times, 25 April 2015

 

Climate extremes: moving from physics to solutions

Professor Paul Whitehead joined over 35 scientists in the Swiss mountains to discuss how to assess and adapt to extreme climate events.

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Delegates at the climate extremes workshop, Riederalp, Switzerland

The most significant impacts of climate change are likely to be due to the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, heat waves and wind storms. The costs of damage caused by these events could be extremely high.

The University of Geneva organised the workshop in Riederalp, Switzerland on 24-28 March 2015, bringing together a wide range of expertise on the science of climate extremes. The scope of the workshop also moved beyond physical science to consider impacts and adaptation policies for reducing climate-related risks and the costs of extreme events to vulnerable societies.

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, presented his research on modelling the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems in India and Bangladesh, which together form one of the largest river basins in the world, providing water to over 650 million people.

The Oxford University research, which forms part of the ESPA Deltas project, assesses how future climate change and socio-economic change in the river basin will impact the flow of water and nutrients into the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megha Delta. The results show that climate change could have significant impacts on river flows, both increasing wet season flows and leading to more frequent droughts. Socio-economic changes could impact flows during droughts, when irrigation will further reduce water availability. The modelling work also explores how management and policy interventions can reduce these impacts.

Participants at the workshop shared case studies of a variety of extreme events, from glacier lake dam bursts in the Himalayas, to heat waves in Moscow, wind gust events in Switzerland, and extreme snow storms in Austria.

An important outcome from the workshop will be a policy document for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris in December 2015. The meeting’s discussions will also be presented to the EU Science Managers to inform them of this key area of research, which is largely missing in the major EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

Visit the climate extremes workshop webpage

Read more about the ESPA Deltas project

View Paul Whitehead’s powerpoint presentation on modelling climate change and socio-economic pathways in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers

Academic publications on modelling the the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, in the Journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts:

Researchers discuss natural hazards and uncertainty at Oxford workshop

A workshop on Decision Analysis for Natural Hazards was held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University on 10-11 March 2015.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, chaired the two-day series of seminars, tutorials and discussion on decision support methods for natural hazards, including floods, droughts and earthquakes, and their consequences in the UK and globally.

Natural hazards decisions are typically made on the basis of data with significant uncertainty and much of the workshop explored decision techniques for unquantifiable or ‘deep’ uncertainty. Professor Yakov Ben-Haim of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology illustrated this concept with examples from other fields such as economics and biology, as well as from natural hazards such as the North Sea flood in 1953 and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Professor Ben-Haim demonstrated the Info-Gap methodology which identifies robust responses across possible future states.

Professor Hall gave examples of environmental challenges that have been practically addressed with decision analysis methods in infrastructure planning for flood prevention. A series of short presentations by participants outlined the broad range of cases in which decisions are made under uncertain conditions, such as landslide prediction, wind storm insurance and water resource management.

Professor Ben-Haim led the group with some practical exercises using Info-Gap to identify robust solutions in the context of uncertainty. Participants then developed their own analyses of relevant decision problems with help from Professors Hall and Ben-Haim, with several ideas for further research collaboration emerging.

The workshop was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council funded programme CREDIBLE (Consortium on Risk in the Environment: Diagnostics, Integration, Benchmarking, Learning and Elicitation), which researches new approaches to natural hazard modelling. Within the consortium, Oxford University researchers Jim Hall, Mike Simpson, Neil Massey and Edoardo Borgomeo focus on decision analysis, drought and water scarcity.

Learning to live with floods and droughts

A panel discussion on Living with Floods and Droughts: Adapting to Hydro-Climatic Extremes was held at the School of Geography and the Environment on 1 December 2014, and brought together a number of water and climate experts in the field.

Dr Simon Dadson, School of Geography and the Environment, chaired the event and highlighted the huge impacts that floods and droughts can have in both developed and developing countries. Examples include the 2013/14 floods in the UK and the 2011 floods in Thailand which caused an estimated $43 billion in economic losses.

At the other end of the hydrological spectrum, a severe drought in 2008 led the city of Barcelona to import water in tankers from France. East African droughts in 2010/11 brought about a devastating humanitarian crisis which counted 260,000 deaths and 1 million refugees.

Dr Dadson invited the panel to reflect on how flood and drought risks might change under future scenarios of climate change, and what actions could be taken to adapt to these changes.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, said that we have tended to cope with floods and droughts reactively in the past, with extreme events triggering policy action only after they have occurred.

However, he said that a transition is underway to a risk-based approach which bases decision making on a much broader range of possible events and consequences that might occur in the future. This “quiet revolution of thinking and methodology” in risk analysis means that we are better than ever equipped to live with floods and droughts, he said.

“The single most important asset we have to manage present and future risks from extreme floods and droughts is the long-term observational record” said Professor Rob Wilby from Loughborough University. He stressed the value of using historic records and information from climate models to understand the processes driving extreme events and how risks change through time.

Climate models can be used to predict future risks. However as Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office pointed out, different models can produce widely varying results and it is impossible to test their accuracy. There is work to be done both in improving the science, and in improving the communication of uncertainties, he said.

Drawing on expertise in climate change adaptation in developing countries, Professor Declan Conway from the London School of Economics and Political Science reminded the audience that the adaptation process has many steps and the production of climate scenarios is just one step.

Professor Conway reflected on what lessons from climate change adaptation in the UK might be relevant for developing countries. In this country, legislation has played an important role in forcing institutions to assess and act on risks facing society. He also mentioned the importance of monitoring – of changes that are occurring now, the consequences of those changes, and the effect of adaptation policies.

Professor Mike Acreman of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said that natural ecosystems are completely adapted to floods and droughts as these events are all part of the natural cycle. Floods or droughts can only been seen as ‘good or ‘bad’ when considering how they impact human uses of the environment.

The natural environment can play a role in influencing the hydrological cycle, Professor Acreman said, but only on a small scale and to a limited degree. For example, restoring wetlands can help store floodwater and release it slowly during drier periods. Payments for ecosystem services may provide a mechanism to fund conservation and restoration of the natural environment to help combat future floods.