By Paul Lambert, Flooding and drainage engineer, WSP in Leeds

Adages such as ‘many hands, make light work’ and ‘a problem shared, is a problem halved’ are so familiar that it’s easy to underestimate the power of teamwork, and the value of different points of view. Yet activities such as forming neighbourhood groups to prevent, or reduce, flood damage really do make a difference.

At WSP, we are currently leading a review for the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) into how climate change is affecting our natural and built environment, including infrastructure. As it is such a complex, multi-sectoral issue, the review is examining the broad insights that only the widest engagement can bring. 

What’s clear from the outset, is that responsibility must be shared.  As extreme weather events proliferate and intensify – as seems likely – it will be unsustainable for the agencies responsible for water services and management to build ever-higher barriers to flood, or protect us completely from drought.  We must adapt and, with a little help from water specialists, we need to do it together.

Working together in Yorkshire and Humberside

 The north of England is criss-crossed by rivers and streams, and has a coastline threatened by climate-related sea level rise.  Here, the power of resilient community has been amply demonstrated, both historically and recently, in the cities of York and Leeds, and in rural areas such as the Aire and Calder river valleys.

The ancient city of York is no stranger to flooding.  Some of its historic inns, situated on the River Ouse waterfront, have interior layouts designed for swift recovery from flood – the result of many years’ experience of high waters. Yorkshire Water has also been building on this spirit of resilience, working with stakeholders including householders, business owners, councils and environmental groups.

How catchment planning means being future-ready

Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) were set up by the government to help co-ordinate flood risk management and widen the scope of flood schemes to link them with health, employment, education and leisure provision.  One such example is the Wortley Beck Catchment Project, which brings together the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, local flood groups, Leeds University and Leeds City Council to align objectives for the area into a single long-term plan, from which all can benefit.

This is in total accord with our WSP ‘Future Ready’ approach through which we aim to see the future more clearly, and work with clients to design for both future and current needs. Catchment planning embodies the type of wide engagement that leads to a far better understanding of the steps that communities need to take to become Future Ready. Quite simply, the people who know what’s best for their locality are those who live and work there. 

In Leeds, which was so hard hit by flooding in 2015, we have been advising on the Wyke Beck Catchment that aim to reconnect communities with the river, while at the same time assuring economic growth, unlocking brownfield development sites for housing and supporting the development of a commercial corridors. 

The projects include creating wetlands and de-culverting watercourses to promote bio-diversity, improving existing drainage systems, and developing natural flood defences such as rivers, streams and ponds. Environmental modelling, ecological assessments, local planning, land ownership and topography, are all part of the equation.

When digital technologies really help… 

Working together means communicating widely and often. Digital technologies help us do this effectively on many levels.

As designers, we are using drone technology and digital design to conduct land surveys and compare the merits of alternative water management schemes, including flood alleviation, faster and more accurately than ever before.  We can use the data to create 3D visualisations, including ‘fly-through’ sequences, to show what new infrastructure, such as a flood barrier, might look like, how it could work, and what it could achieve.

Communities and other stakeholders can access, share and discuss this type of content in social media - an approach that is proving helpful for LLFAs in determining future strategy, including in relation to Wyke Beck Valley.

For water companies, consultancies, and government agencies, gathering and analysing data – in aptly named ‘data lakes’ – will play a vital role in making communities more resilient through improved asset performance. Digital twins – accurate digital replicas of areas - may be used in the future to test the reliability of services to develop more sophisticated contingency planning and management.

So, while no single approach is totally watertight, working together, and maximising the benefits of digital technology, could make all the difference to how well we manage flood, drought or any other challenges to our water supplies, in the uncertain years ahead.

Read more about water resilience in YorkshireContact the author Paul