AI mapping of flooding incidents across UK since 2007 lays bare worrying lack of resilience in face of heavy rainfall

Flooding has inflicted major damage and disruption to businesses, communities, infrastructure, hospitals, and schools across the UK over the past 14 years, according to a fresh analysis today that has prompted fresh demands for greater preventative action against the growing threat posed by heavy rainfall.

The analysis used an artificial intelligence (AI) technique to scan thousands of local, regional, and national newspaper articles for reports on flood events and their impacts so as to create an interactive map of the UK’s flooding woes since 2007.

It found at least 51 flash flood events have occurred in major urban centres such as London, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Edinburgh since 2007, affecting scores of businesses, public services, and transport systems, and indicating a significant urban drainage problems across the UK.

Although far from an exhaustive database of flood incidents in the UK over the period, the research nevertheless reveals that flash floods have led to significant disruption and damage, with various flooding incidents that resulted in media reports impacting at least 15 hospitals, 68 schools, and nine care homes.

Impacts were in some cases severe enough to disrupt patient care and school lessons, while causing costly damage to buildings and infrastructure, even on occasion leading to closures of schools and power outages.

The research also found several instances of emergency healthcare patients having to be diverted elsewhere, as well as several life threatening incidents involving cars trapped under railway bridges and collapsed bridges.

Heavy rainfall and flash flooding has also caused severe damage to dams on at least two occasions – most recently to the Toddbrook Reservoir in Derbyshire which led to the evacuation of the nearby town of Whaley Bridge – and led to 12 instances of flooded electricity substations, the analysis reveals.

Moreover, it found at least 31 UK supermarket branches have suffered major flooding damage over the past 14 years, alongside scores of other shops and businesses that were similarly impacted, while emergency services have even on occasion been required to help evacuate London and Glasgow underground railway stations.

Led by ‘liberal conservative’ think tank Bright Blue in partnership with ClimateNode, the analysis has prompted calls for more research, funding, and regulatory powers to combat the threat posed by increasingly extreme weather, amid long-standing warnings that the UK remains badly unprepared for worsening flood risks.

Report author Helen Jackson, associate fellow at Bright Blue, said the vast disruption caused by storms and flooding across the UK was likely to escalate in the coming years due to climate change, highlighting the need “to be more preventative and less reactive” to extreme weather incidents.

“We need to recognise this trend and do much more to ensure our urban drainage and sewer systems can cope with heavy rainfall as the climate changes,” she argued. “This should include limiting the spread of impermeable surfaces in our cities and ensuring basic measures like drain cleaning are not overlooked. 

“The recent furore over sewage spills highlighted the importance of adequate drainage and sewerage systems for environmental quality – but this is not just an environmental issue, it is a public safety issue.”

The research also sets out a raft of policy recommendations for government, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the Climate Change Committee, and businesses to drive far more preventative action to reduce the growing threat posed by flash flooding.

More funding and research into the risks posed to urban areas from flooding is needed, as well as mandatory regular reviews of local authority flood contingency plans, and a major review to identify high risk NHS, transport, energy and education assets across the UK, the report argued.

It also calls for a major public information and advice campaign covering all aspects of flooding in a bid to increase national resilience, and recommends supermarkets are allowed to remain open longer on Sundays during major extreme weather events to help support communities.

Greater responsibility should also be explicitly given to departments and ministers across Whitehall for addressing flood risk, while sewerage companies should face strengthened requirements to ensure their networks are more resilient to the risks of being overwhelmed by sudden heavy rainfall events, the report argues.

It is not the first time the UK’s lack of preparedness for growing climate impacts has fallen under the spotlight, with the CCC and others repeatedly calling for more policy action and funding to improve the country’s resilience to climate change impacts. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press, but in its formal response last autumn to the CCC’s latest report on the UK’s climate resilience the government broadly accepted its climate resilience strategy needed strengthening.

Ryan Shorthouse, Bright Blue’s chief executive, said the Covid-19 crisis exposed that “the UK sometimes lacks preparedness for unforeseen disasters”.

“Flooding is one of the most serious climate-related challenges that this country is facing and will continue to face as the climate changes further in the coming years,” he said. “Reaching net zero emissions is vitally important, but the impact of flooding is already being felt deeply in communities across the UK. The UK government can and must do much more to better improve the resilience of local communities, businesses, public services, and critical infrastructure to flooding.”

Flash flooding is in many ways even harder to prepare for than flooding from rivers, given that poor drainage afflicts many urban environments and intense rainfall can now hit anywhere. But today’s report provides further evidence that flood risks are worsening and without significant improvements in infrastructure resilience, planning policy, and emergency response the UK is set to face plenty more disruption in the coming years. 

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