Sunday, 25 August 2013

Flood risk management and Jane Austen: all part of a day out in Edinburgh

One of the serendipitous delights of this visit to the UK is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The city is almost overwhelmed with visitors from all over the world, flocking through the streets in search of the fun and frivolity of the Fringe.

It can also be a bit much. The main streets and places like the Royal Mile are all but immovable, and the tourists (yes, that’s me too, I know) have taken over. I’m pretty sure that you’re not really supposed to pet police horses, for example, but the pair I observed yesterday were taking it all very patiently. Does it count as bribing a police officer if you’re making friends with his horse?

Luckily, I had the insights of an almost-local. Vanessa Collins lives just over the border in Newcastle and she braved the slightly dysfunctional rail network on Thursday morning to pop over for some brunch, a chat about water resource management and a viewing of Austentatious.

I think Edinburgh forgot it was still summer, and I woke up to mist snuggled up around the castle and the Scott monument. The Georgian terraces were equal parts obscured by mist and road works (apparently one must not mention the tram works. At all.), but the brunch was excellent (if you’re after something tasty and inexpensive, try Cafe Milk).

Vanessa is working for the Environment Agency, an extraordinarily large public agency in the UK responsible for sustainable development and environmental management, including water licensing and flood risk management. Apparently there are over 10,000 staff in the agency, working all over England. 

Vanessa is a civil engineer working as a project manager in the flood risk management area. England is trying to find ways to reduce flood risks to lower catchment towns, using a range of engineering solutions, including building bigger flood walls in towns, and finding ways to store more water in the upper catchment. What I find most interesting about this issue is that climate change is likely to make floods more frequent, and more extreme, but probably less predictable. So how do you invest in the flood mitigation measures, knowing that you’ll really need them at some future point, but until then, they aren’t really useful at all? Even more challenging: how do you hold space in a water storage to retain flood waters when storage levels are dropping? The corollary of increased flooding under climate change is that periods of low flow and drought are also likely to be more frequent. From what I can tell, this is less of a problem here in England than it is in Australia, for example, but it wasn’t so long ago that parts of England were drought stricken. Managing uncertainty and variability requires a new mindset, and it’s one that sits uncomfortably alongside accounting measures of capital investment. I think there’s going to be some interesting learning curves as our understanding of the new hydrology of many of our river systems develops over time.

I’m reminded of the work of Chris Spray at the University of Dundee in the Eddleston catchment, where upstream storage mechanisms are being enhanced using a combination of engineering solutions and ecosystem services like re-inserting meanders in the river, building wetlands and revegetating upper catchments. Researchers at the University of Newcastle are also working with the Environment Agency on a range of catchment management approaches to mitigate flooding in Belford (check out this and this).

None of these activities are cost free, and they all impose a trade-off between what you can use the water, space and money for now, as opposed to what you might need to use it for in the next flood. We don’t know when that will be, but we do know it will happen.

After all that, it seemed only logical to weave our way through Edinburgh’s mist-shrouded streets and parks, claim a space in the queue, and enjoy the hilarity of Austentatious. Improv comedy in the style of Jane Austen: who could ask for more?

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