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Could Natural Flood Management Help Sheffield?

Posted: 13/01/2017

Sheffield’s River Don has broken its banks and flooded areas of the city many times, with particularly widespread flooding in both 2007 and 2009 causing many people to be evacuated from their homes and leading to extensive damage to many homes and businesses.

There have been many debates over the best way to protect the city from the river’s rising waters, but as the council starts the proposal phase for works to engineer the river and its course, some are calling for a greater focus on natural flood management (NFM).

NFM involves looking at ways to slow the rate at which rainfall enters the river upstream. In many cases, this can mean carrying out activities miles outside of the areas actually affected by flooding.

Examples of NFM techniques include planting trees, putting the natural bends back in rivers and recreating blanket bogs. The idea is that all of these measures stop a surge in river levels by releasing rain water into the river more gradually.

The Yorkshire Post revealed that there is a growing number of people backing NFM as opposed to more traditional flood prevention measures.

Professor Alastair Driver, an independent catchment restoration specialist and former national biodiversity manager for the Environment Agency, told the newspaper that NFM has great potential.

“The simple truth is we are only scratching the surface with NFM at the moment. There is a lot more we can do, and a lot more we should be doing,” he stated.

However, Professor Driver acknowledged that one of the issues with getting local authorities onboard is proving the effectiveness of NFM tactics. But despite the challenges of modelling the impact of NFM, he is hopeful that more people understand its benefits.

He was among those who successfully lobbied for NFM funding to be ringfenced in the most recent Autumn Statement, and says that the government’s decision to protect £15 million for NFM sends “a really strong signal” to local flood authorities that there are benefits to this approach.

In Sheffield, the focus is currently on options such as building flood defence walls in the city and creating temporary flood areas higher up the river’s course to help hold back water during periods of heavy rainfall.

And the city doesn’t just have one large river to cope with - it has two, the River Don and the River Sheaf - as well as smaller waterways such as Porter Brook and Blackburn Brook.

During the 2007 floods, two people were killed and the flood water reached depths of nearly 2m in places, submerging homes and businesses in the Don Valley and Brightside areas of the city, as well as in Millhouses Park to the southwest of Sheffield. On that occasion, both the River Don and River Sheaf overtopped their banks.

Just two years later, flash flooding caused widespread damage and saw people evacuated from their homes in the Arbourthorne and Norfolk Park areas, as well as the city centre. Flood waters reached over 1.5m in places.

And in 2012 there was another flash flood in July at a time when many other parts of the UK also experienced flooding following heavy rain.

With flooding still a threat in Sheffield and elsewhere in the UK, it’s essential that all organisations that could be at risk have robust emergency response plans in place to deal with disruption to their business, as well as to take care of the safety of their employees.