Managing flood risk

Flooding is a natural process resulting from a variety of events. It is a major problem for many people, posing a risk to health, safety and wellbeing.

It can cause loss of life, damage to property and possessions, loss of business and jobs and affect critical infrastructure such as electricity and water supply systems.

Flooding can occur from the natural processes of heavy rain, tidal surges and raised groundwater levels, among others. It can also result from interference with the natural drainage processes, such as changes to river channels, increased run-off from land or blocked sewerage systems and culverts.

In extreme weather conditions, rivers, streams and drainage systems reach their capacity and the ground becomes saturated. Water gathers and the natural boundaries, for example embankments, can no longer retain the water, resulting in the banks overflowing. This overflowing water follows the path of least resistance, settling in low-lying areas.

Flooding causes and mechanisms

Flooding occurs naturally but human activity has significantly altered natural drainage processes, often causing greater flood risk.

Urbanisation has reduced the ability of land to absorb rainfall through the introduction of hard, impermeable surfaces. This results in an increase in the volume and rate of surface run-off as less water infiltrates into the ground.

In the past, development has taken place on areas of land at relatively high flood risk, where often building has pressed tightly up to the river bank. These factors make urban areas more prone to river flooding and there is potential for run-off from new development to exacerbate river flooding downstream.

Some natural watercourses – particularly in urban areas – are now confined to narrow channels, often inadequately maintained. In the past culverting of watercourses in built-up areas was quite common, and was seen as a way to release more land for development. Culverting increases flood risk significantly because piped sections restrict flow, pose a serious risk of blockage and restriction and eliminate natural flood routes.

Flooding can be arranged into four broad areas:

  • Coastal flooding and erosion
  • River (fluvial) flooding
  • Surface water (pluvial) flooding
  • Groundwater flooding.

There is also potential risk of flooding from failure of infrastructure, including reservoirs and sewer systems.

Coastal flooding and erosion

Tidal levels are a crucial factor especially when combined with other weather conditions, including low pressure and high winds. These conditions can lead to coastal defences being breached or overtopped, resulting in flooding.

Coastal flooding and erosion

River (fluvial) flooding

During heavy or prolonged rainfall events, rivers can experience large flows which cause them to exceed their capacity. In the natural environment open spaces near the river act as storage areas or ‘flood plains' for out-of-channel flow, alleviating downstream flood risk.

Urbanisation can severely affect this natural process. Faster run-off rates from upstream urban areas can result in an increase in flow in the rivers downstream, and building on the flood plain can significantly increase the risk of flooding both directly to the development concerned and on a wider basis by removing capacity from the flood plain. 

River (fluvial) flooding

Surface water (pluvial) flooding

Localised heavy rainfall on impermeable or already saturated surfaces can generate surface water run-off beyond the capacity of the drainage network. Surface water cannot then enter the sewerage system and the drainage network overflows, resulting in overland flow. The majority of flooding experienced in the summer of 2007 was caused by surface water flooding.

Surface water (pluvial) flooding

Groundwater flooding

In some parts of the UK, water levels in the ground can rise above the surface after prolonged periods of heavy rainfall (not to be confused with the failure of rainwater to infiltrate, especially in clayey soils). This is most likely to occur in areas underlain by permeable rocks, called aquifers. These can be extensive regional aquifers, such as chalk or sandstone, or may be more local sand or river gravels in valley bottoms underlain by less permeable rocks.

Groundwater flooding can be prolonged, lasting up to months in some cases. Groundwater flooding by its nature can also be very difficult to address as substantial works may be necessary to conduct the flows away to a natural outfall by gravity. However, it is worth noting that many aquifers are valuable resources for water abstraction and as such are protected/works restricted.

Climate change

Climate change poses a major challenge in our management of flood risk. Increases in global temperatures and changing weather patterns indicate that climate change will cause more extreme weather events.

The impacts of climate change are likely to:

  • increase the severity and frequency of storm events
  • increase the frequency of intensive rainfall events that may cause significant run-off from urban and agricultural areas, exceeding the capacity of artificial drainage systems and natural watercourses reaching their capacity
  • increase the saturation of groundwater from large rainfall events that may cause large overland flows and watercourses to overflow
  • contribute to rising sea levels that may increase the risk of coastal flooding.

You will find a number of practical resources on the Environment Agency website to help you assess how you might be affected by our changing climate.

Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change website

The evidence base

It is widely accepted that climate change is occurring and will affect our weather patterns. The rise in temperatures and the changes to weather patterns in recent years have provided further evidence for this.

The UK Climate Projections were published in June 2009 and predict how these changes will affect us. The key findings from UKCP09 suggest that

  • all areas of the UK will experience warmer weather especially in the summer
  • the amount of precipitation annually will only slightly increase but more will fall in the winter and summer rainfall events will become more intense
  • sea level rise will be greater in the south of the UK than the north.

UK Climate Projections 2009 website