Flooding Impacts on Property, Businesses, Humans and Wildlife in the UK

York, England 2012.      (Steve Allen/Shutterstock.com)

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." - Native American Proverb

“Climate change is the greatest threat to our existence in our short history on this planet. Nobody’s going to buy their way out of its effects." - Mark Ruffalo, Actor & Environmentalist

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything." - Albert Einstein

“Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling." - Greta Thunberg

Climate change and the threat of flooding in the UK

Already, nearly half a million Britons are affected by sea level-linked soil erosion. As the Arctic melts and sea levels rise, battered coasts, drainage overflows and road, property and field flooding jeopardise the 11.5 million people who live near estuaries.

The Thames Barrier helps protect £275 billion of property and infrastructure and was closed more than 50 times in the 2013–2014 winter – comfortably, a record. More than a quarter of the total closures in the Barrier’s 32-year history occurred in the 2013/14 winter.

Some 1.3 million people live in the Thames tidal floodplain and are therefore vulnerable to flooding if current defences fail or are overtaken by a climate-induced sea level rise; £275bn worth of property is also at risk.

The Environment Agency’s TE2100 Plan highlights that without effective mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Thames estuary may have to deal with sea level rise that exceeds the Barrier’s capacity.

Along the English Channel coast, the sea level has already risen by about 12cm in the last 100 years. With the warming we are already committed to over the next few decades, we can expect a further 11–16cm of sea level rise by 2030. This equates to 23–27cm of total sea level rise since 1900.

Flooding already poses a risk to vital infrastructure such as roads, fresh water supplies, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, schools and energy supplies, and the risk is projected to rise. By the 2080s, up to 1,800 schools could be exposed to ‘significant likelihood’ of flooding (a greater-than-one-in-75 annual chance).

During the 2020s decade, 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land are likely to be flooded at least once every three years. By the 2080s, this will reach 130,000 hectares of high-quality land – an area larger than Greater Manchester.

Economic and business costs

York, England 2015.      (PhilMacDPhoto/Shutterstock.com)

“The costs of adapting are less than the cost of doing business as usual. And the benefits many times larger." - Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Flood damage currently costs the UK around £1.3 billion each year; the total economic damages for England from the winter 2015–2016 floods were estimated to be around £1.6bn, with 32% of total damages occurring to the business sector.

According to current projections, there is a 10% chance of a catastrophic flood happening in England within the next two decades, which could cause in excess of £10bn in damage. Such a flood would cause 10 times more flood damage than the combined impact of the tidal surge and storms in winter 2013–2014, and three to four times more damage than in 2007.

Flooding and other extreme weather events are likely to leave 2.5m homes at risk of flooding unless ministers take action. The UK economy could face hits of more than £12bn ($15.4bn) a year by 2050 from coastal damages alone if no action is taken to combat climate change, according to a recent report commissioned by conservation charity World Wildlife Fund.

The report states that floods, droughts and heatwaves could cost the economy tens of billions of pounds and hundreds of thousands of jobs by 2050.

A “natural capital” stress test found that flooding in 2050 on a similar scale to the winter of 2013–2014 would affect more than twice as many homes if current policies, such as allowing construction on flood plains, continue.

Property and insurance costs: 2020 UK floods

According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), over 82,000 people claimed for flood or wind damage as a result of storms Dennis and Ciara in February 2020, and the total cost of repairing homes and businesses is expected to top £360 million.

The insurance – and potentially, reinsurance – market loss from flooding that struck the UK from 9–29 February 2020 is now estimated to have caused a total industry loss of US$500m (£375m), up 26% from an estimate made in April.

It was estimated that at least 4,800 properties were damaged by the February UK floods. Flood defences saved the damage from being much more widespread, which would have driven a significantly larger insurance and reinsurance market loss. . The UK’s winter 2020 flood experience began in November 2019, when large areas of northern England flooded, and continued into early 2020, with flood incidents in December and January, before the peak of the winter floods began with Storm Ciara in early February. As a result, the ground was already well saturated, thanks to a very wet winter in the UK and the previous flood incidents that affected the country.

This was then followed by further strong storms Dennis and Jorge, also in February. The total cost of this UK winter weather to the insurance and reinsurance sector is estimated by to be around UK £775m, or just over US $1bn.

Welsh incident: costs to property and humans

Nantgarw, Wales February 2020. (Ceri Breeze/Shutterstock.com)

Take, for example, the critical flooding incident declared in Pontypridd, Wales, in February 2020, which saw a total of 1,000 homes flooded as heavy rain swept in with Storm Jorge.

Many of the 680 affected families were lacking insurance to cover the cost of replacing wrecked belongings. “People are being costed out of insurance. It is so astronomical. It costs between £70–£100 a month for home insurance." - Heledd Fychan. And according to first minister Mark Drakeford, the total flood damage could cost up to £180m.

Linda Davis, a flood victim in Pontypridd, expressed exhaustion at the sheer stress and scale of damage to her home. The 73-year-old had spent all Saturday night watching the mud-brown river rise higher and higher. Letting her groceries drop beside the piles of sandbags protecting her house in Pontypridd from the once-again surging waters of the River Taff, she said,“It is frightening,” tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m just so tired.”

Davis’s home, along with many of her neighbours' properties, had already been filled with a metre of contaminated floodwater in the aftermath of previous flooding caused by Storm Dennis; she and her 76-year-old husband had been without hot water and refrigeration for two weeks. “It’s been horrendous, and it could have easily come in again last night,” she added. “It didn’t, thank God – but there is more rain coming. We won’t be able to relax for a long time.”

Insurers say work to ensure Wales avoids significant flooding in the future could “easily” cost more than £500m, but claim such costs are “needed” in the next decade.

The cost to animals and nature

“The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us." - George Monbiot, Guardian journalist

Along with the devastation to human lives and properties in the recent spate of deadly storms hitting the UK, animals were also severely affected by the floods. For example, hundreds of animals are thought to have drowned in the floods before Christmas 2019 in Cumbria, with increased wildlife casualties during surging amid fears over ‘polluted’ wetlands.

While the terrible loss of lives and homes has been well-documented, the damage to bird, mammal, fish and insect populations, and habitats will also have a long-term impact on the ecosystem. Seals, moles, hedgehogs, badgers, mice, earthworms and a host of insects and seabirds are among the unseen casualties of the floods, storms and torrential rains of the 2020 storms, say wildlife groups.

As the waters started to subside across England during the February 2020 storms, conservationists reported that about 600 guillemots, puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and gulls had been washed up on the south coast, as 250 seals drowned in Norfolk, Cornwall and the Channel Islands. A further 11,000 seabirds were reportedly found dead on the French coast.

“The relentless storms hitting our coast have had a cumulative effect on animals, which can usually cope with bad weather, but are now on really low reserves and are dying in large numbers," said Niki Clear from Cornwall Wildlife Trust, which has reported that dozens of seal pups were washed up on beaches.