1953 North Sea Floods anniversary: More needs to be done on ‘flood resilience’, leading engineer claims

A scene from the 1953 floods, which killed thousands across Scotland, England, the Netherlands and Belgium, including dozens in East Lindsey.
A scene from the 1953 floods, which killed thousands across Scotland, England, the Netherlands and Belgium, including dozens in East Lindsey.

A leading figure from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has warned that more needs to be done to improve the ‘flood resilience’ of communities - including those hit by the devastating 1953 North Sea Floods which killed thousands.

Sixty years after the devastating floods of 1953, the UK and Europe remains under threat of rising waters in the face of climate change and increased rainfall.

But continued investment in infrastructure must be matched with increasing the flood resilience of communities, experts have claimed.

Professor David Balmforth, the vice president of the ICE and chair of the Inter-Institutional Flooding Group, said coastal regions are now better protected by sea defences, reliable flood forecasting, and well-established emergency response measures.

But he has raised concerns that progress on making communities more “flood resilient” was less advanced, arguing that work in this area might be the key to tackling flooding in the future.

“It is important that we continue to invest in appropriate levels of flood defence works in the future,” he said.

“However, of equal importance is building the flood resilience of our communities. Flood forecasts are not universally embedded in the day to day life of all communities at risk of flooding, and in too many cases, communities do not even realise that they are at risk.

“Our buildings and infrastructure are also not always designed to resist flooding and more can be done to make them flood resistant – in much the same way that we have made buildings more energy efficient.

“We have yet to learn that building resilience against floods must be at the heart of any future flood risk management strategy,” he said.

Professor Balmforth, who is also a fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), made his remarks as flooding experts from the UK and abroad gathered to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1953 floods in a reception held by the CIWEM and the ICE this week. His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester KG GCVO provided the opening address.

On January 31st and February 1st 1953, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Belgium were devastated by some of the worst flooding in recent memory.

The North Sea Flood of 1953 was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Over 1,600 kilometers of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 square kilometers.

Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.

Six decades on, rising waters remain one of the UK’s greatest challenges. Rising sea levels due to climate change and increasingly severe and frequent rainfall has increased the risk of flooding throughout the UK.

Just this week, nearly 50 flood warnings and 200 alerts were put in place across the country, with south-west England and Wales expected to be worst hit.

Speaking at the CIWEM and ICE event Frank Heemskerk of Royal HaskoningDHV said that the Dutch have changed their approach in recent years: “We now focus on working with water and nature instead of against it. This means creating opportunities by combining multiple functions when designing flood defences.”

Integrated solutions are especially important said Heemskerk, as the number of people at risk of flooding has increased significantly since 1953.

“Risk has increased with development in flood plains,” said David Rooke MBE, Environment Agency Director of Flood and Coastal Risk Management, expressing particular concern over caravans and mobile homes now at risk in the UK. He said that overall, the UK now has much stronger defences to a much higher standard of protection.

Environment Minister, Richard Benyon said the UK is better prepared than ever to respond to major flooding, but encouraged residents to sign up for advance flood alerts, “Today, people have a much better chance to protect their lives, loved ones and possessions and stay safe by signing up for the Environment Agency flood warnings.”

Minister Benyon added: “We are doing all we can to protect homes and businesses from flooding, and expect to exceed our target to protect a further 145,000 properties in the four years to 2015.”

The reception was sponsored by Jacobs, Mouchel, Halcrow, Black & Veatch and the NERC Water Security Knowledge Exchange Programme (WSKEP), and supported by the Inter-Institutional Flooding Group (IIFG).

The discussion continued throughout CIWEM’s Rivers and Coastal Group Annual Conference on Delivering Flood Schemes Funding, Partnerships and Opportunities - Emerging lessons held 30 January at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.