Flood Defences: necessary and sufficient?

A Happy New Year to everyone, although for many residents of the northern part of the UK it's very unhappy. Flooding, which has been a long-standing and serious threat in many other countries, is becoming an annual event here, especially in winter. The flooding is caused by extreme weather, with more conventional storms now replaced by "weather bombs" that can continue for days.

Whatever the causes of this change in weather patterns, which can be addressed in a variety of ways, the flooding which results also has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. There's agreement that yet more money will have to be spent on defences (walls, banks, pumps and drainage routes), but is this the whole of the answer?

Money is certainly necessary, but it's not sufficient to solve (or at least make strong inroads into) the problem. First of all, there's never enough money to ensure that everywhere is safe from flooding; this is a complex phenomenon, in which combinations of local conditions relating to rainfall, geography and the drainage/river systems, make prediction difficult. As a result, flooding can occur without warning and in places in which it has rarely if ever been seen before. However, it's clear that certain places, low lying and close to major rivers, are very vulnerable and frequently flooded, so they must deserve priority in any expenditure.

On the other hand, because everything is so inter-linked, it's difficult to ensure that a given action (e.g. improving flood defences and diverting water) will be net positive and not simply transfer a problem because, until it reaches the sea, this excess water still presents a danger. There are also other possible actions to consider, which may support or be an alternative to flood defences, such as different policies for tree planting, controlling construction in low lying areas and more joined up working between agencies responsible for flood control. Such actions may not in fact cost much money, although they may encounter other difficulties to initiate.

So this is a very classic strategic dilemma (see our post dated 4 September 2014) which doesn't suggest easy solutions. One thing that is certain, however, is that it requires a country- or region-wide approach, the use of data to model scenarios and probabilities, and a calculation of the optimal cost-benefit of any expenditure of money and other resources. One "silver lining" of the current situation is that there is at least an increasingly rapid build-up of such data and experience that can be applied to design responses.


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