February 2020 floods reviews trigger clarion call to step up response to Climate Emergency impacts

Taff at Pontypridd during storm Dennis

The lessons learnt from February’s floods must be the catalyst for a seismic shift in how Wales responds to the climate emergency and manages its future flood risk.

That is the urgent call to action by the Chief Executive of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) Clare Pillman as the organisation publishes its reviews into its response to February’s flood events today (22 October 2020).

The record rainfall and river flows triggered by Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge earlier this year arrived following an exceptionally wet winter and led to the most severe and widespread flooding incidents seen in Wales since 1979, which also impacted many of the same communities.

Investments made in NRW defences since that time have significantly improved Wales’ resilience to extreme rainfall. Across the whole of Wales, 73,000 properties benefit from NRW’s flood defences and it is estimated that 19,000 properties in South Wales escaped the flood waters during Storm Dennis due to the presence of NRW defences.

Yet the impacts of the successive storms earlier this year were felt across right across the nation as 3,130* properties succumbed to the ensuing flood waters over the course of the month.

The Met Office later confirmed that February 2020 would enter its record books as the wettest February on record and fifth wettest month since records began in 1862.

Reflecting on the events, Clare Pillman said:

From the lives upended by the devastating torrents of water, to the challenges faced by those immersed in the emergency response, February’s exceptional events were a test for everyone involved and our thoughts are with those still recovering and rebuilding today.
Just as the flood events of 1979 were a decisive moment for flood risk management in Wales, February’s events were just as pivotal. The intensity of the winter storms is a warning of more frequent patters of extreme weather to come, and the lessons we learn from our experiences must ignite the discussions around the investments needed, and the preparations we all need to make to adapt to climate change and bolster Wales’ resilience to flooding for years to come.

The call to action comes on the day that NRW publishes the outcomes of its reviews into its response to the February storms.

The reports – which have been independently reviewed - have looked at NRW’s procedures and actions, including the performance of flood defences and the flood warning service within the context of the exceptional conditions. They have also looked at how the organisation manages the land in its care to understand if any land management operations undertaken by NRW prior to the flooding incidents contributed to impacts on communities.

The reviews found that the decisions and actions taken by NRW staff played a significant part in lessening what could have been even more severe impacts across Wales. The closing of flood gates, installation of demountable barriers and clearance of structures ensured many areas were effectively protected from the waters.

Yet the scale of the events meant that, at times, NRW’s operations were stretched. This included the ability to react to rapidly escalating and unforeseen events on the ground, or to gather visual observations to support the issuing of flood warnings.

A record 243 Flood Alerts, 181 Flood Warnings and 6 Severe Flood Warnings were issued in February allowing people to take action to reduce the impact on themselves, their families and their properties. However, 12 flood warnings were not issued when they should have been, and six were issued late. Some immediate improvements have since been made to help reduce the eventuality of this happening again in an event of similar magnitude, and the review recommends longer term actions for further improvements.

Some defences sustained damage following the floods, but none had a structural failure. All repair works to flood defences that required immediate attention have been completed, while some longer-term improvements to defences are programmed for delivery over coming months.

It is recognised that many other incidents related to flooding from smaller rivers and streams, road drainage and sewers. NRW is working with local authorities on their own investigations into the causes of flooding in their own areas where appropriate.

As part of the land management review, NRW has also looked at the management of the Welsh Government Woodland Estate land above Pentre, Mountain Ash and Blaenllechau in Rhondda Cynon Taff to determine any contribution land operations may have had on flood impacts in this area.
The review found that NRW’s operations at the site above the Pentre village were in keeping with standards of good forestry practice and, that these operations were not likely to have been the primary cause of the flooding in Pentre.

The flood review sets out five key themes that NRW needs to address in the short and longer term– supported by ten key areas for action - which will accelerate Wales’ progress to becoming better protected and prepared for more extreme weather events.

They are:

• Shortfalls in the flood warning service provision, evident in such significant and extreme events.
• Capacity limitations to effectively warn and respond to flood events of this significant scale.
• The need for a stronger, holistic organisational input into NRW’s flood response.
• Improvements needed in NRW’s actions in the lead up to events and its ability to recover from them.
• Difficult choices are to be made about the level of service that is practical, realistic and feasible, and the associated implication for the investment that will be required.

The conclusions drawn from the land estate management review have also led to another ten key recommendations on how NRW should adapt its current approach to land management to contribute to reducing the risk of small to medium scale flooding at a local level.

Clare Pillman added:

NRW takes the outcomes and actions recommended within our reviews incredibly seriously, wholeheartedly accepting where change is needed to improve the service we provide. We are committed to implementing the improvements it recommends.
Amongst the issues our reviews have identified, there are things that can and have been addressed quickly. Other areas of improvement will require significant investment, design and planning and will take some time, possibly years, to fully resolve.
But there are clearly lessons to learn and improvements to be made for all bodies responsible for flood risk management in Wales. While we can’t attribute every storm to the effects of climate change, the scientific evidence suggests that we are likely to see more of these extreme weather events in the future.
There is no single solution, and the challenge is bigger than any one organisation can tackle alone. That is why all levels of government, the organisations responsible for managing flood risk, businesses and the communities at risk, all need to be part of the decision making, pulling at all the levers at our disposal to meet the challenges of a changing climate.

The reviews are published in the week that the Welsh Government launched its National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management – a framework that sets out the direction for Wales’ approach to managing the risks from flooding and coastal erosion in the face of the climate emergency over the next decade.

Chair of Natural Resources Wales Sir David Henshaw said:

We welcome the publication of the Welsh Government’s strategy and are committed to working closely with them and with partners to implement and take forward the policy within.
Yet even within this context, and despite the significant investment in flood risk management over recent years, February’s events signalled that more needs to be done to adapt to challenges that will be exacerbated by climate change in the future. There are difficult choices and decisions to make.
An important conclusion of our reviews is that the scale of resources at NRW’s disposal did not match the size of the task at hand for an event of this scale and significance. Improvements can and will be made to some elements of our existing service within current resources.
But as the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths MS said when launching the new flood strategy for Wales, we need to have the conversations about how we respond to the flood risks and the climate challenges in the future. We also need a common understanding of the level of service Wales wants and is prepared to invest in and how collectively all organisations and communities work together to improve Wales’ resilience to flooding.
NRW will continue to invest in our people, technology, infrastructure, systems and processes to undertake our flood risk management duties and protect our communities. But the impact of climate change is something for all of us to tackle as a collective and is an issue that must be tackled without delay.

Read our reviews into the February 2020 Storms.