February 2020 floods in Wales - our response
Introduction from Sir David Henshaw
Many of you reading this will remember the exceptional scenes we saw across Wales in February 2020 as the nation was hit by three named storms in the space of four weeks.
Images of marooned vehicles and properties succumbing to rising flood waters are immediately conjured as the record rainfall and river flows resulted in the flooding of 3,130 properties.
Our thoughts and sympathies continue to be with those whose houses were damaged, whose livelihoods were threatened and with those still in the throes of recovery and rebuilding following these exceptional events.
Wales has not seen a wetter February since records began in 1862. It was also the fifth wettest month on record, resulting in some of the most significant flooding Wales has seen since the 1970s.
While it was a period that challenged and stretched the resilience of everybody involved in the response, it was also a period that galvanised communities and brought the fortitude of residents and emergency responders right to the fore. The commitment, hard work and generosity of spirit demonstrated at that time was something to behold.
I was able to see the scale of the structural and human impacts of the flood waters during my visits to some of the worst-hit areas. It is sobering to consider what the outcome might have been if the storms had happened during the waking hours when more people would have been out of their homes, going about their everyday lives.
Add in the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic that followed, and it is not difficult to see why the emotions and problems experienced have not been as quick to recede as the waters did at that time.
The dedication of Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) team members to protect people and property in such challenging conditions was unwavering. I am hugely proud of the crucial role we played in that effort and am all too aware of the emotional and physical toll this period took on colleagues.
The investments made by NRW - and other organisations - in improving Wales’ resilience to the impacts of heavy rainfall through enhanced defences, modelling, forecasting and warning systems over recent decades certainly helped to prevent more severe and widespread flooding in February.
However, we recognise that this will come as little comfort to those affected by the exceptional storms which occurred on the back of a very wet winter.
This was certainly a period that tested our own organisation’s capacity, systems and services to the fullest.
After every serious flood incident, NRW carries out recovery and review work to ensure that our organisation learns the lessons from the experience and makes improvements wherever possible. The relaying of the experiences of our staff and our partners have been crucial in informing these substantial pieces of work and I am hugely grateful for their contributions.
Our flood review looks at what worked well but crucially also identifies areas where we need to make improvements in our own operations, and the actions we should take to ensure we are ready to respond to the next event as best we can.
The review found that the decisions and actions taken by skilled and experienced NRW colleagues played a significant part in managing the unfolding situation, lessening what could have been more severe impacts. Many of our structures and systems worked well, and the flood defence measures that have been implemented and maintained since the 1970s meant that we were able to prevent flooding to tens of thousands of properties right across Wales.
However, the sheer volume of water falling in a short space of time during the storms meant that, while defences did not fail, some overtopped in places.
The review also found also found our resources could not fully cope with the size of the task at hand for an event of this scale and significance.
From the 430 flood alerts or warnings issued during February, 18 warnings were issued late or not at all. The speed and scale of the events were certainly contributing factors, but this falls below the standard of service we want to provide. We have since made some improvements to our flood warning service to help reduce the likelihood of this happening again in an event of similar magnitude.
As part of the organisation’s recovery, we have undertaken a thorough assessment of our assets and have already made many repairs to our flood defences and structures. Longer term, larger repairs have also been scheduled for the weeks and months ahead or will be the subject of future discussions with the Welsh Government where further investment is required.
Yet there is still significant work to do, and many of the actions identified will inform the wider debate that is needed around how flood risk is resourced and managed in the future.
As part of our review work, we have compiled a detailed summary of the key data that captures the true scale of the events in February, from record rainfalls to record river flows. We have also reviewed any implications the floods could have on how we manage the land in our care.
NRW’s reviews and the separate investigations carried out by local authorities into their own flood risk management operations and the causes of flooding in their respective areas, will shape decision-making on how we manage water in the future. We will continue to work with these authorities and other partner bodies responsible for flood risk management to keep under review what is practically possible to mitigate the impacts of extreme rainfall in the years to come.
But the fact remains that we must all accept the inevitability that communities in Wales will flood again, and that the threat is likely to become more severe and more frequent. While we can reduce some of the risks through managing down the likelihood of impacts from flood events, we cannot control the weather. Nor can we change where urban development has already taken place. The scale and the challenge of climate change is substantial and increasing and we will have to manage expectations on how much flooding can realistically be prevented.
The Welsh Government has already declared a climate emergency and the scale of that challenge is growing. The extended periods of long, dry weather we saw over the spring and summer this year, followed closely by the arrival of two named storms over two weeks in August illustrates the extreme and unpredictable climate challenge we face.
Climate specialists tell us that warmer temperatures caused by climate change will make these periods of extreme weather conditions more likely and more severe in the future.
As Wales looks to take a green pathway towards our recovery from Covid-19, we should go beyond simply recognising the scientific fact and impact of climate change. We must ensure that flood risk management and how we learn to live with and how we manage more water as a nation, is central to our discussion.
Now is the time to think and act differently. The Welsh Government’s new National Flood and Coastal Erosion Strategy sets out how it intends to manage the risks from flooding and coastal erosion across Wales over the next decade. We cannot avoid the fact that difficult decisions will have to be made when developing long-term policy. Wales will need to be braver when considering spatial planning and development decisions and give careful consideration to what exactly Wales is prepared to invest in when it comes to the nation’s flood resilience.
We must continue to invest in ageing flood defences, but we must also complement this requirement with other measures. This could include embedding more natural flood management measures where appropriate, holding back water higher up in the catchment or making space for water where this is possible and where it can make a difference.
While continued investment over recent years has meant that we all have more information at our disposal to better prepare ourselves, and our properties, from the potential impacts of severe storms, we also need to help communities to recognise their own flood risk and support them to take more personal responsibility to protect themselves and their properties before the rain starts to fall.
There is, however, no ‘one size fits all’ solution, and we will need to consider implementing a range of actions to tackle the challenge before us.
But to truly learn the lessons from the February 2020 flood events, there needs to be a fundamental consideration of the choices that we all have to make on how the risks are managed and resourced.
Only by bringing together all levels of government, public bodies, businesses, communities, families and individuals to respond to this very real threat can we make Wales stronger in our adaptation to future floods. We at NRW are committed to doing just that.
Sir David Henshaw
Chair Natural Resources Wales
After every major flooding event, NRW undertakes a comprehensive internal review of what happened. This includes a review of our systems, our procedures and our actions to enable us to identify the lessons to be learnt, what went well and what did not, and improve the way we operate in the future.
This summary is reflective of NRW’s position only. Local authorities are also required to investigate the causes of flooding in their own areas and, where appropriate, we are supporting them in this process.
Our own investigations capture the views and feedback of colleagues across the organisation and the experiences of the communities affected and the partners involved to understand what went well and what could be improved.
We have analysed and reviewed data collected during and after the storms to give context to the extreme nature of the storms during the month and our own performance in those circumstances.
We have looked at the performance of our flood defences and the Flood Warning Service, from forecasting through to the dissemination of warnings.
We have also looked at how we manage the land in our care as part of our land estate management review, to understand if any land management operations undertaken by NRW prior to the flooding incidents contributed to impacts on property.
We have worked to address the immediate impact on NRW’s operations and prioritised the repair of damage to assets. This recovery work has been driven by our commitment to ensure that if, and when, flooding happens again, we are ready to respond to their best of our ability.
But just as communities take time to recover, so do we. The journey towards recovery is long and the work involved substantial. Whilst this process is advancing well there is still more to do, and longer-term improvements to be made.
From an organisational perspective, we are indebted to colleagues for both the way they responded and the feedback of their experiences prior to, during and after the storms. This crucial evidence has enabled us to identify the aspects of our operations that were efficient and worked well, as well as identify issues that could be addressed immediately or added to a longer-term programme of work.
Working within government and public health coronavirus guidelines, our staff have been undertaking an extensive programme of flood defence inspections and assessment of our land assets to make essential repairs to help protect people, properties and business and the safety of those using our estate.
The associated social distancing restrictions made our normal level of post-flood engagement with communities more challenging. While we were no longer able to host large public meetings, we were able to engage virtually with community representatives, councillors, Members of the Senedd and Members of Parliament, and were able to meet individuals and smaller groups as restrictions were eased.
There are clearly lessons to learn and improvements to be made for all bodies responsible for flood risk management in Wales. Our reviews set out the lessons, recommendations and actions that NRW will take as a result to improve our own services and help make communities more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather events in the future.
Separate reports conducted by local authorities into their own operations will determine further action for the relevant flood risk management authorities (RMA).
The flooding seen across parts of Wales in February 2020 were remarkable, both in terms of scale and severity. Successive bands of heavy rain and three named storms, ‘Ciara’ (8-9 Feb), ‘Dennis’ (15-17 Feb) and ‘Jorge’ (28 Feb – 1 March) came hot on the heels of the wettest winter the UK has seen since records began in 1862.
Each period of heavy rainfall was delivered in quick succession over saturated catchments to rivers that had yet to fully recede from previous events.
This led to the most significant series of flooding incidents to hit Wales since the floods of December 1979, which also impacted many of the same communities. River levels recorded in February this year were in some cases higher than those recorded over 40 years ago, yet the subsequent impacts were significantly less.
A record 243 Flood Alerts, 181 Flood Warnings and 6 Severe Flood Warnings were issued in February. At the peak of Storm Dennis, there were 61 flood alerts, 89 flood warnings and two severe flood warnings in force - more than NRW has ever issued for a single storm before. 22% of NRW’s river gauges in Wales recorded their highest water levels ever recorded during Storm Dennis, a remarkable and sobering statistic that shows the scale of the events.
February 2020 saw record-breaking rainfall and river flows across the UK, leading to its entry into Met Office history books as the wettest February and the fifth wettest month since records began in 1862.
It was also the fifth wettest winter on record with February’s extreme rainfall falling on already saturated ground.
Experiencing multiple widespread extreme rainfall events in the same calendar month is extremely rare. Indeed, when the Met Office produce rainfall data their maps typically record up to 200% of average rainfall. In February 2020, the scale went above 400% for some areas.
Records show 288mm of rain fell on average across Wales in that month, but with some areas receiving up to four times the long-term monthly average.
Storm Ciara impacted the catchments of North Wales most severely with catchments of the Rivers Conwy, Elwy and Upper Dee receiving the highest amounts of rainfall and experiencing some of the highest river levels.
Storm Dennis produced extreme rainfall over a very short and intense period. This fell across the top of the South Wales valleys and Brecon Beacons, with a focus on the River Taff catchment and high up within the River Usk catchment.
All parts of Wales were affected. The Vyrnwy rain gauge in Powys recorded 515mm of rainfall in February making it the wettest February for that area since records began in 1908.
River levels and flows
Many rivers in Wales, particularly in the South Wales Valleys and parts of North Wales, are relatively steep and flow through narrow valleys that are underlain by impermeable geology.
As a result, runoff from headwaters following intense rainfall reach main rivers at rapid speed, and river levels respond quickly.
The significant rainfall in the previous nine months also contributed to the extensive flooding, because soils were saturated and could not absorb much additional water. The sequencing, duration and severity of February’s rainfall in the catchment areas of Wales was of such intensity that many river levels reacted extremely quickly, reaching record levels and flows.
During the height of Storm Dennis, the River Taff at Pontypridd reached its highest level since records began in 1968.
At its peak flow on 15 February, it is estimated that 805 cubic metres per second was passing through Pontypridd, enough to fill an Olympic size swimming pool in just over three seconds. Over a 22-hour period, the river increased in height by 4.2m, recording a level 78cm higher than the previous highest-level set during the 1979 floods, when there was widespread flooding. Though regrettably many properties flooded in February, it was not to the level seen in 1979 due to the investments made in defences over recent decades.
Along the River Usk, the record river level set in 1994 at Llanfoist was broken by levels reached during Storm Dennis, reaching 5.6m at its peak.
During Storm Ciara it is estimated that the river levels in St Asaph on the River Elwy were the highest level since records began in 1974 –higher than November 2012 when major flooding was experienced, which shows the benefits reaped from the improved NRW investment in defences in St Asaph. The scheme prevented a repeat of the widespread flooding experienced in 2012. Some localised flooding was experienced and further analysis work with Denbighshire County Council is ongoing.
Almost a quarter (22%) of NRW’s 231-strong network of river gauges in Wales recorded their highest water levels ever in February. The evidence and facts underline that these were exceptional events.
Managing the floods
Roles and responsibilities
It is a truism that when your home or business is affected by flooding, you will not spend your time deliberating where the water came from, or who is responsible. You simply want to see action taken.
Equally, flood risk management and determining the causes of flooding are critical and complex issues, particularly when waters have little respect for organisational boundaries and flooding is caused by different factors and from different sources.
NRW is the Risk Management Authority (RMA) with powers to manage flood risk from main rivers, while flood risk from smaller watercourses, surface and ground water and sewerage systems is managed by Local Authorities and other bodies.
NRW issues flood warnings and maintains a flood warning system, while other bodies lead on emergency responses such as pumping out flood waters and managing evacuation procedures.
So, when flooding occurs, different bodies responsible for different aspects of flood management come together to coordinate and deliver the emergency response.
However, when the flooding comes from a range of sources including main rivers, local watercourses, underground culverts and drains, it can make investigating and understanding the exact causes and mechanisms of specific floods challenging.
Whilst there are many examples of good collaborative working, all relevant authorities need to find ways to further improve how they work together to serve our communities.
According to local authority data, 3,130 properties across Wales were flooded as a result of the February storms.
Properties known to have flooded include 224 properties during Storm Ciara, 2,765 properties during Storm Dennis, and 141 properties during Storm Jorge.
The effects stretched from Crickhowell and Usk in the South East, to Pontypridd, Nantgarw, Taff’s Well, Pentre and many other communities in the South Wales valleys. Communities in Conwy, Powys and Denbighshire also experienced significant flooding. The impacts were indeed widespread, but they were undoubtedly seen most profoundly in the South Wales Valleys, as evidenced by the number of properties flooded in this area, many for the first time in living memory.
The lessons identified
The main findings
The flood reviews identified that many of our structures and systems worked well and as expected to protect thousands of properties across Wales from the impacts of the extreme rainfall.
Investments made to build defences since previous major flood events have made a significant improvement to Wales’ resilience to extreme rainfall. For example, improvements made to defences since the 1979 floods in South Wales means that thousands more properties are now at lower risk.
The newly constructed NRW flood alleviation scheme in St Asaph, built to protect 293 homes and 121 businesses in the city, performed well on the whole and prevented a repeat of the flooding experienced in 2012 where a fatality occurred. The impacts of flooding in Llanrwst on the River Conwy could also have been much worse without the successful deployment of NRW demountable defences preventing flooding from the River Conwy.
The significant investment in forecasting and warning systems also means that people are better able to prepare for potential incidents.
Yet the scale and speed of the February rainfall was such that some flooding was unavoidable, resulting in trauma and considerable long-term impacts on individuals, families and communities.
The services and the roles NRW undertakes during a significant flood event were severely tested during this period. While there are many examples of good practice and where our work made a real difference, in some cases we were stretched beyond our capacity.
Since February, we have addressed many of the immediate issues through our recovery programme of work. Elements of this work are ongoing and some of the impacts, recovery and improvements required after Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge will take time and additional resource and investment to address.
The main issues identified by the flood incident managemtn review that NRW needs to address in the short and longer term can be summarised under five key themes:
- Shortfalls in the flood warning service provision, evident in such significant and extreme events.
- Capacity limitations (especially out of core hours) to effectively warn and respond to flood events of this significant scale.
- The need for a stronger, holistic organisational input into our flood response.
- Improvements needed in our actions in the lead up to events and to our 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.
As well as acknowledging the many good elements of the operations, the flood incident management review also identifies ten key areas with recommended actions for improvement.
The land estate management review looked at three key elements of land management on the Welsh Government Woodland Estate:
- Forest Resource Planning
- Infrastructure and Civil Engineering
- Forest Operations
The conclusions drawn from that review have been consolidated into another 10 key recommendations on how we should adapt our current approach to land management to help reduce the risk of flooding. These are summarised later in this report.
A critical element of managing the impacts of weather events such as those experienced in February, and an area which has seen significant enhancement and development in recent years, is the ability to forecast more accurately and longer into the future.
NRW works with the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC) housed at the Met Office to analyse the latest forecast information and flood risk in Wales and summarise the information in the Flood Guidance Statement (FGS).
This is an update that goes to local authorities and emergency responders and is replicated on NRW’s website. This early warning service allows organisations to prepare for the possible impacts. This flood forecast sits alongside the weather warnings from the Met Office.
At the same time there are still significant uncertainties involved in predicting the weather and its impacts, especially in rapid response catchments such as those that feature across much of Wales. For example, in advance of Storm Ciara, the FGS only reached Low Risk status, with the potential impacts being forecast as significant as the storm developed, but with a low likelihood in the forecast. While considerable modelling advances have been made in recent years, there is always scope for improvement, including looking at how the risks and impacts are communicated to our audiences.
Flood Warning Service
The Flood Warning Service operated by NRW provides vital information to customers in flood risk areas. It provides advance warning and therefore time for people to take action to protect both themselves and their property. There are three levels of flood warnings – Flood Alert, Flood Warning and Severe Flood Warning. The operation of the service is dependent on inter-related technical systems and datasets, tools and procedures and the expertise of specialist staff.
The level of service to customers has improved significantly over time, with expansion of the service coverage and improvements in accuracy, resolution and lead time due to technological advances. This is particularly true in areas such as the rapid response catchments of the South Wales Valleys where the time between rain falling, rivers rising and flooding happening can be very short.
Warnings have also moved from broader catchment areas to community specific warnings, reducing the chance of false warnings and increasing the chance that people will take notice when warnings are issued.
It is estimated that at the beginning of February 2020 over 126,000 properties were registered to receive flood warnings in Wales, enabling them to take measures to prepare themselves, their homes, businesses and families for the impacts.
Storm Dennis saw the largest number of warnings that NRW has ever issued for a single event - 65 Flood Alerts, 89 Flood Warnings and four Severe Flood Warnings alone.
During Storm Dennis it was clear that the complex decision-making and judgment used to issue flood warnings during a very short timescale, and in the early hours of the morning, became increasingly challenging.
The workload and pressure at this time was significant and, in the rapidly escalating events that occurred during that particular storm, some flood warnings were issued late (after the onset of flooding) or not issued at all.
Three Flood Warnings were issued late in the lower Taff Valley, three Flood Warnings were issued late in the Teifi Valley, 11 Flood Warnings were not issued in the Rhymney Valley, and one was not issued on the River Towy. The demands of the extreme events experienced led to the level of service falling below what we aim to provide. We acknowledge the reasons which led to these shortfalls, and actions are being taken to address the issues over the short and longer-term.
The flood warning service depends on the skills and expertise of the staff who run the service on a 24/7 duty rostered basis. The review has found that this capacity was severely stretched, and improvements are needed if we are to cope with this scale of event in the future.
We are taking significant steps to address capacity issues and are reviewing what can realistically be delivered within current operational, staffing and funding levels. We are looking at improving the decision-making processes related to the issuing of severe flood warnings, and whether we can simplify the process of issuing the less significant warnings during major events.
NRW’s network of flood defences across Wales helps protect 73,000 properties from flooding. Each performed well and according to design standards during the storms, with no significant structural failures.
They were effective in the protection of an estimated 19,000 properties during Storm Dennis including over 1,000 in Rhondda Cynon Taff.
The closing of flood gates, installation of demountable barriers and clearance of structures ensured many areas did not flood. In addition to the fixed and demountable defences, the flood warnings sent out to individuals across Wales allowed many to take action to reduce the impact on themselves, their families and their properties.
Nevertheless, extensive flooding did still occur across parts of Wales. Some of it was linked to water levels exceeding the height that the defences had been built to in accordance with current national design standards.
Many other incidents related to flooding from ordinary watercourses, road drainage and sewers.
We use world-leading techniques to model rivers to predict where flooding will happen and to help us investigate what can be done to mitigate the impacts. This work continues with a strong focus on areas at greatest risk and taking full account of past flooding events such as those experienced in February. Where practical, viable proposals will be developed, and we will continue to work with local authorities and partners to learn from their own local investigations.
It would be tempting to suggest that the solution to keeping communities safe lies in investing in building our defences and barriers forever higher.
But this would be beset with significant environmental, social and financial costs. Communities would need to consider if they would want to see large concrete walls constructed in their towns and villages, separating them from the green spaces, rivers and seas that are so important to sustaining their health and wellbeing.
Space constraints and ground conditions in urban communities often make building further defences challenging. Higher structures also make the risk of defence failure greater with the impact of faster and deeper flood waters.
Building more and building higher simply isn’t feasible everywhere and we need to manage unrealistic expectations that all flooding can be prevented by simply building more defences. Building higher defences in some areas will only channel the water further downstream and increase the flood risk of other communities. Defences have their place, but they are certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the challenges we face.
We need to complement defences with other measures, such as holding back water higher up in the catchment, making space for water in valleys, and in some cases accepting that, especially during events of this scale, there will be flooding. We also need to make properties more flood-resilient, invest in warning systems, community support and advice so that communities can take their own actions to lessen the impacts of flooding.
There are undoubtedly difficult decisions to be made. All levels of government must work in coalition with the bodies responsible for flood risk management and at-risk communities to drive forward a collective approach to improving flood management.
Our operational response
NRW has an important emergency role under the Civil Contingencies Act and sits alongside a range of other organisations involved in Wales’ national response to large-scale events.
Our response on the ground leading up to and during the storms included both proactive and reactive activities focussed on the operation of our defences and the maintenance of our assets. While the response in managing our assets and structures was stretched, overall we performed well. The closing of flood gates, installation of demountable barriers and clearance of structures ensured many areas were effectively protected from the waters.
The reviews identified issues across some areas of operational response due to the limited additional capacity we had to respond reactively to events. This included our ability to provide support to partner organisations, to react to unforeseen events on the ground or to gather important observations at key locations to feed back to incident rooms to support the issuing of flood warnings.
The scale of the events meant that, at times, our operations were stretched, and improvements need to be made in terms of staff availability for duty rotas and how we prioritise our response. We are taking steps to bolster the numbers of staff available to take up incident response roles through an internal recruitment effort, and we will provide more training for our staff where required.
Operational issues such as the suitability and availability of vehicles and other equipment such as mobile phones that can withstand the weather and geographical conditions are also highlighted as areas which restricted NRW’s response in some instances. Where appropriate, short term solutions are being implemented, and back up arrangements put in place where we need to make longer terms improvements.
NRW dealt with a significant number of media requests during and after the flood events. Storms Ciara and Dennis generated 500 articles in a wide range of media outlets which were supported by NRW communications. Over 40 media interviews were given by NRW staff, appearing multiple times across Welsh and UK broadcast outlets. Our social media presence also proved crucial during the events of February, enabling us to share key messages to warn and inform the public, and obtain useful insight to what communities were experiencing.
One of the most significant impacts to NRW’s public presence was that our website failed to respond on two occasions due to the significant surge in traffic, and overall it performed poorly for three and a half hours over the weekend of Storm Dennis - including some periods when it was unavailable. This prevented members of the public and partners from obtaining information on flood warnings, river levels and what to do during and after a flood.
Steps have already been taken to make improvements to our website’s resilience to ensure it can continue to provide vital information during periods of heavy traffic should the same demands be placed upon it during future events.
Managing our land estate
As part of our review into how we manage the land in our care, we have sought to identify where evidence shows current practices could be modified to reduce the risk of flooding.
Forests influence water in a mostly positive way but there is little evidence to suggest that they have a significant modifying effect during flood events of the size and scale seen in February, regardless of management practice.
However, in some smaller catchments where forestry is the dominant land use, woodland can have a positive effect during less extreme conditions. Work we can carry out on our land to hold and delay the release of water could contribute positively to flood management downstream, especially when combined with other catchment-wide actions. But it has limited impact during large-scale flooding events when land is saturated.
The conclusions reached in our review have been consolidated into 10 key recommendations on how we should adapt our current approach to land management to help reduce the risk of flooding.
There are changes we could and should make to how we plan our forests, how we design and look after our forest infrastructure and how we undertake forest operations that will help to reduce the risk of small to medium scale flooding at a local level.
Due to the increasing likelihood of extreme rainfall events, we need to do more to think about water quantity as well as water quality. We can strengthen the use of existing tools to identify flood risk and mitigation opportunities so we can prioritise the highest risk areas on the NRW estate and build this into the Forest Resource Plans for those areas.
Further investment on a long-term plan to inspect, maintain and upgrade drainage structures is also recommended to ensure they continue to work as designed. More can also be done to engage with communities and local stakeholders to increase their awareness of the role of the woodland estate to help mitigate flood risk, but also to its limitations in preventing flooding like that experienced in February.
Many of the actions we identify are already underway, such as the existence of tools and information we need on flood risk, the programme of upgrading Forest Resource Plans and much of the work on recovery from the February 2020 floods.
Yet the full implementation of the recommendations we make based on our findings requires considerable work which could see the redeployment of resources away from other activities as well as significant additional investment.
Taken in the context of the 157,000ha of land we manage, not everything can be addressed at once. We need to identify the higher risk areas where adaptations to the land we manage will have the most positive impact on those communities most at risk of flooding, so that we can best use the resources we have available. How much more we do and how fast we do it depends on the choices made about relative prioritisation of resources against other important public benefits.
As part of the land management review, we have also looked at the management of the Welsh Government Woodland Estate land above Pentre in Rhondda Cynon Taff to determine any contribution land operations may have had on flood impacts in this area. This also informed our immediate recovery work.
The review found that our operations at the site above the 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.
We want to assure the community that we will continue to work with Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water to understand the causes of the flooding in Pentre in February and what can be done to help protect at-risk communities in the future. We will continue our engagement with residents and business owners as these investigations progress.
The steps we have taken since February 2020
Out in the field, we have inspected 2,127 flood defences and structures to ensure that they continue to offer protection and inspected 170 high risk assets on the NRW land estate such as bridges, and over 100 coal tips.
Inspections carried out following the floods identified 101 defects requiring repair. All works to our flood defences that were deemed urgent and that required immediate attention have been completed to ensure communities have the same level of flood protection they had before winter 2019/20.
In the aftermath of the event, we undertook repairs to several of our flood assets at locations including Abergele, Llanrwst, upstream and within Llanfair Talhaiarn, Ponthir, Usk town and on the Afon Elwy upstream of St Asaph. Numerous assets have also been identified requiring work in the short term and these have been built into our work programme for this year. These include work at Machen, Risca, Glasbury and Towyn.
We are working closely with communities that have been impacted, or that are at greater risk, to determine if there are any further long-term solutions that can be implemented. However, these are more complex issues and will take more time and investment to address. This includes reviewing options for the Lower Taff (from Pontypridd area to Cardiff), a major undertaking which has started with a review of the modelling. It also includes work in locations such as Ystrad Mynach, Bedwas, Bangor on Dee and damaged defences in locations in Cardiff.
Some defences sustained damage following the floods and, in some cases, water overtopped some defences due to the extreme flows of water experienced that exceeded design standards. However, no structures were breached, and none collapsed.
For the small number of issues identified on coal tips on our estate, identified repair work was quickly commissioned and delivered. Immediately following the events, some emergency works were also carried out on the Welsh Government Woodland Estate where key infrastructure needed to be repaired to allow access for forest operations and third-party access. A three-year plan is in development to address further damage to the assets on the estate.
The recovery work will continue over the weeks and months ahead to ensure that NRW and the people of Wales are in a strong position to face any future flooding events. Immediate improvements have been made to our website’s resilience, our warning systems and we are working to increase the number of staff on incident rotas, but additional identified actions will take a longer period of time to implement.
Preparing for the effects of climate change
In February, we saw the devastating impact of record rainfall and extreme flood events across wide areas of Wales. We saw how disruptive the flooding can be for homes and businesses, and how the distress and economic costs can last far beyond the subsiding of the waters.
While the figures suggest that the flooding events we experienced were exceptional, climate science suggests that they might not be quite so exceptional in the years to come.
We have to accept that we cannot stop the rain and that some flooding is inevitable. As climate change leads to more extreme weather events, we are certain to see more of the types of storms we have seen this year in the future.
While February was exceptional and record breaking, our focus must turn to the records that are yet to be broken and to take the steps we need to take now to improve the nation’s resilience to such flooding.
The prospect of managing such huge quantities of water is extremely challenging and must be approached in a collaborative way.
The Welsh Government’s National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management in Wales provides a sound starting point. However, we must all adapt the way we live and work as the climate emergency evolves – to learn to live with variations in temperature and more water and to support our communities to become vigilant and more resilient to more frequent extreme weather events.
This means knowing our flood risk, preparing in advance, signing up to the flood warning system and taking the right steps to protect ourselves, our homes and our property. Through our community flood plans, we are working with people to help them understand the actions they can take to reduce their own risk and the measures they can put in place to increase their properties' levels of protection.
Water management and flood risk also has to be at the heart of the planning decisions made at local government level on where people, property, communities and businesses are located.
Where that risk is too great, planning departments should employ a longer-term view and have the confidence to reject proposals if necessary. We have made progress in this respect in recent years and that needs to continue.
Wales has an extensive network of flood defences, which reduce the risk of flooding to communities and businesses, as well as to transport links, water supplies, power provision and other key services. This network should be regarded as a key part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and it needs investment to keep it fit for purpose or look to replace it where necessary. Continued investment in maintenance as well as capital work is crucial and necessary to keep this network operating effectively so society, the economy and nature can function and prosper.
Flood defences can also be complemented by nature-based solutions such as holding water back in uplands, making space for water, planting trees and encouraging infiltration.
Increasing the levels of protection to property, such as the installation of flood gates, could also mean that, when flooding does occur, they can be re-occupied quickly. The use of temporary or demountable defences and other methods of managing flood risk all have their parts to play too, but are relient on having the necessary resources available to use them.
But no one single solution can solve the problem, and Wales will need a combination of all these measures in order to help communities become more resilient. With that comes the need for further investment in our human resources too. We will need more expert and skilled staff to deal with these complex issues because the resource need is greater in scale and longer in duration than that which we have at our disposal now.
Delivering key improvements to the service will require adequate support in both funding and resources and those discussions will continue with the Welsh Government. It is roughly estimated that 60-70 additional members of staff are needed over the long term to sustain the overall service and to address the actions set out in our flood review. Additional resources will also be required to address the recommendations made to reduce flood risk as set out in the land management review.
But to truly learn the lessons from the February 2020 flood events, there needs to be a fundamental consideration of the choices that governments, decision-makers and society have on how the risks can be managed.
The Welsh Government’s new National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management sets out how it proposes to manage flood and coastal erosion risk to people and communities across Wales.
It outlines the full range of options available to help manage risks, including (amongst others) catchment management approaches and measures intended to strengthen planning and development practice so as not to put further communities at risk.
Within this context however, there are still choices to be made about the ’level of service’ that is practical, realistic and feasible, and the associated implication for investment that will be required.
The people and governments at all levels in Wales need to determine what level of flood risk management service it wants to see and is prepared to support. This applies to whether we want to see, and back, more investment in the wide variety of measures that can be used to manage flood risk, such as warning and informing systems, building defences, making our own properties more resilient to flooding and all the other possible interventions.
We also need to consider the level of service that NRW is able to provide. Inherent in the notion of flood risk management is that it is a risk management process, and the activities undertaken to manage the risk can be delivered at different levels. There is a clear link between the service level that can be provided and the resources and capacity available to deliver it. So more can be done to manage the risks further, but this will require more resource to do so. Equally, we could do less and accept that the resultant flood risks will be greater.
An important conclusion of this review is that the scale of resources at our disposal did not match the size of the task at hand for an event of this scale and significance. Added to this, the expectations on delivery from all stakeholders increase all the time.
As a result, the level of service we were able to provide was not equal to the level of service many expected from us.
It was assumed by many that NRW is geared and resourced to manage risks at a level that can deal with the exceptional scale of events as we experienced in February.
But despite the dedication and efforts of all colleagues involved, the evidence underlines that we were not able to fully deliver the level of service that was needed or expected and fell short in some areas.
With the climate science pointing to more frequent periods of extreme weather in the future, we have to be realistic about what we can do to close that gap. Improvements can and will be made to some elements of our existing service within current resources, but fundamentally, we need a common understanding of the level of service Wales wants and is prepared to support.
It is vital that there is an openness about future flood risk amongst all audiences, and this should be encouraged so that everybody can understand the risks and work collectively to increase the resilience of residents and businesses, so they are better prepared to recover more quickly from flooding.
NRW is committed to playing a leading role in the effort to make communities more resilient to extreme weather events. We will do more to communicate with communities about our operations and continue to deliver the best flood risk management service we can provide now, all the while recognising and being realistic about our limitations when dealing with the forces of nature. We will also play our part in shaping Wales’ response to the significant climate emergency challenges of the future.
But we cannot address the issues on our own. Only by taking a holistic approach across governments, authorities, catchments businesses and communities can we make smarter decisions about the actions and investments we need to make in Wales to mitigate future risks in a changing climate.
There is no doubt that the exceptional rainfall and hugely challenging conditions in February stretched everybody involved. Through it all, the efforts of communities and the responder organisations was immense and should be recognised as such.
Whilst the impact of flooding on more than 3,100 properties cannot be underestimated, there is strong evidence that NRW’s services and the investment made in flood defences prevented a significant amount more. The advice we provide on planning decisions also plays a key role in helping to reduce flood risks across Wales.
The improvements we have recently made to our digital services on our website will now provide an even greater level of service to at-risk areas, giving comprehensive and real-time flood risk, river level, rainfall and sea level information to households, businesses and communities.
NRW takes the outcomes and actions recommended within our reviews incredibly seriously, recognising where they have reflected positively on what we have done to protect communities over the years and wholeheartedly accepting where change is needed to continuously improve the service we provide.
Amongst the issues our reviews have identified, there are things that can and have been addressed quickly, including inspections of, and repairs where required, to our defences and structures.
Other elements of improvement will require significant investment, design and planning and will take some time, possibly years, to fully resolve. And that investment will need to be bolstered by the resources required to deliver. These investments will need to be complemented by significant changes to the way we manage flood risk in Wales, adapting to the impacts of climate change and accepting that some flooding will be inevitable.
These elements require further discussion related to the level of service NRW is able to operate and provide within its current resources.
We 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.