Before the deluge

  • 13th February 2024

David Kelly explains how to mitigate the increasing threat of floods to your school campus

Many regions of the world are experiencing more frequent extreme weather events. The UK has also been exposed to this worrying trend, with record temperatures being set year-on-year, and the impact of flood and storm systems being felt across the country. The UK Met Office predicts that the frequency and intensity of rainstorm events will increase in future years due to the effects of climate change – in the summer, this could increase by up to 20% and in winter it could increase by up to 25%. According to a recent ‘Climate change risk assessment’ report, an estimated 1.8 million people are living in areas of the UK at significant risk of coastal, surface or river flooding. The population of people living in such areas is projected to rise to 2.6 million by the 2050s under a 2°C scenario and 3.3 million under a 4°C scenario, assuming a continuation of current levels of adaptation and a low population growth.

In relation to the potential impact of climate change on school buildings and historical sites, the predicted change in weather patterns is only part of the challenge. Add to that complexity, the pace and scale of urbanisation, the limitations on capacity within existing infrastructure, and it’s not difficult to see how risks from climate change and associated weather events will increase the risk of flooding in many locations.

According to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, by the 2080s, up to 1,800 schools in the UK could be exposed to “significant likelihood” of flooding (a greater than 1 in 75 annual chance). Consequently, the likelihood of damage, disruption and increasing costs of repair and insurance will feature prominently on the risk registers of local authorities and individual properties.

Time to change

So how to manage this increasing risk? In recent decades, the flood risk management community has moved from a policy of ‘flood resistance’ (that is, keeping water out of buildings), to a policy of ‘flood resilience and recoverability’ (that is, designing and operating buildings to minimise the impact of flooding). This sentiment ‘accepts’ that flood risk is likely to increase and focuses on adaptation and/or design solutions that can minimise damage and support rapid recoverability. It’s a more sustainable approach and lends itself to greater capacity building as flood risk increases with climate change impacts.

In practical terms, however, typical flood mitigation will use a mix of resistance and resilience measures, at a community and asset level. This ‘layering’ of protection often yields the best results and is increasingly seen as the most comprehensive approach to managing flood risk. This will often require collaboration and communication across organisations (public and private sectors) and should align with a ‘flood emergency response plan’ which defines roles and responsibilities, as well as advance warning alerts.

Sticking with the theme of practicality, there are a number of activities that educational establishments could undertake to improve their awareness and preparedness for flood. These activities have been described within a timeline that could act as a prompt for action.

At risk?

For any establishment that has a known flood risk, or has been affected by flooding in the past, there are a number of tasks that should already have been undertaken. A review of historical flood events is always a useful exercise as it highlights the extent to which the establishment is currently at risk and the effect of flood events that have happened in the past. This information could be supplemented by personal experiences from staff, claims information, and documentation related to previous damages that may have occurred. It is also important to understand the extent to which a site is exposed to flooding. This information is readily available via the devolved environmental agencies (Defra, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, etc), where flood maps can show the areas likely to be affected by flooding and the extent to which that risk is likely to impact a location.

In areas where flood risk is known, there will be a regional (or catchment) flood management plan, often referred to as a strategic flood risk assessment. The elements of relevant watercourses, coastal areas and existing flood defences will be reflected in this documentation, and it should be used as a valuable source of information in gathering details on existing flood risk and existing infrastructure.

Educational establishments should also be undertaking current activities to determine their preparedness for the flood risk that has been identified. Identifying areas of weakness across the site in relation to flood resistance and flood resilience is a critical activity to manage risk. This should include an investigation on how flood water is likely to present to the site (for example, from which direction) and how quickly this can develop (based on previous experiences). This analysis should then inform the development of resistance and resilience measures to protect the site and minimise damage and disruption. Typical resistance measures would include identifying and protecting access and egress routes that could provide a pathway for water to enter the site. At the building level, service penetrations, ventilation gaps and entrance doorways are obvious elements that should be protected.

Current activity should also include a review of the likely damage that could occur during and after a flood event. This analysis should include a view on the level of disruption that could be caused, and the likely time required for the site, asset or portfolio to recover. This will give an indication on the current level of resilience and will identify opportunities for improvement in relation to resilience and recoverability.

Emergency response

A Flood Emergency Response Plan (FERP) is a good way of establishing procedures that can protect a site from flooding. The FERP can include physical activities, such as deploying flood protection measures when a flood warning is received or moving sensitive equipment/materials to upper levels of the building beyond the predicted flood depth. Liaison with the local emergency services is also recommended to ensure that response measures are coordinated and measured in relation to the predicted risk.

Be resilient

In the medium to long term, educational establishments should seek opportunities to improve their flood resilience by integrating this approach into routine maintenance and refurbishment activity. Climate risk will increase in future years and flood events are likely to become more frequent and severe. Consequently, positioning climate risk high on a risk register will provide opportunity to mitigate the potential effects in a more consistent and structured way.

Resilience measures, such as using recoverable floor coverings, raising electrical connections, etc should be integrated into routine maintenance schedule and refurbishment programmes. Taking this approach will reduce the impact of specific capital spend solely on resilience measures and is a more ‘sustainable’ approach that should be considered.

In summary, climate change impacts will increase flood risk in many areas of the UK. Protecting assets and providing opportunity for resilience and recoverability are key to mitigating these risks. Assessing current levels of protection and resilience to flooding are important, as is coordination with emergency services as part of emergency planning activity.

David Kelly is vice-president of risk specialist Marsh Advisory UK.

David Kelly

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