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July 01 2013

May 18 2012

Gideon Mendel's photographs of a Drowning World – in pictures

Since 2007 photographer Gideon Mendel has visited scenes of devastating flooding around the world including the UK, Haiti, India, Pakistan, Australia and Thailand. Here are some of his images

Flash floods are on the rise, while the budget to tackle them sinks | Bob Ward

The Environment Agency has warned the UK to expect more floods but its advice seems to be falling on deaf ears

A moving new exhibition of photographs at Somerset House shows the human impact of flooding around the world over the past five years and provides an insight into how climate change may already be disrupting lives and livelihoods.

The images from major flooding events in the UK, Pakistan, Australia and Thailand feature victims and survivors as they cope with the inundation of their homes and the aftermath. The photographer, Gideon Mendel, says his intention is "to depict them as individuals, not as nameless statistics". He adds: "Coming from disparate parts of the world, their faces show us their linked vulnerability despite the vast differences in their lives and circumstances."

One of the most striking exhibits shows Margaret Clegg standing knee-deep in water in the living room of her house in Toll Bar, Doncaster, which was flooded when the River Don overtopped its banks in June 2007, following a record downpour.

It is not clear to what extent, if any, climate change contributed to the occurrence or intensity of the summer 2007 floods in England and Northern Ireland, which cost the UK economy more than £3bn. A single extreme weather event cannot be definitely attributed to climate change, the influence of which can only be detected and measured through the analysis of statistical trends looking back over many decades. That means we will not be certain for many years to come about how flood risk is being affected.

We know from basic physics that a warmer atmosphere can become more humid and holds more water vapour, theoretically increasing by about 7% for every extra centigrade degree. As a result climate change is expected to increase the intensity of the water cycle in many parts of the world, causing both more droughts and more floods.

An analysis of UK weather trends between 1961 and 2006, during which the average temperature increased by about one centigrade degree, indicated that although our winters have not become significantly wetter, the number and severity of heavy rainfall events has increased. Meanwhile, summers have become drier and heavy summer downpours have decreased in all parts of the UK, except in north-east England, where some of the 2007 flooding occurred, and north Scotland.

Climate change is expected to increase the risk of flooding in many parts of the UK. Projections published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2009 suggested that, under a "medium emissions scenario", overall winter precipitation should be higher in the 2080s, while summer rainfall should generally be lower, particularly in the south.

The UK climate change risk assessment, published by Defra earlier this year, calculated that these potential trends mean the annual damage from coastal and river flooding in England and Wales could increase from about £1.2bn today to as much as £12bn in the worst case scenario over the next 80 years.

Such an increase in the risk of damage would have major consequences, not least in terms of the affordability and availability of flood insurance for homes and businesses. Indeed, a crisis is already approaching, with insurers warning that from next year they may not continue to offer cover for 200,000 high-risk properties, exposed to a greater than 1 in 75 annual risk of flooding.

Under an arrangement dating from 2000, insurance companies have subsidised flood cover for those in high-risk properties in return for greater government investment in coastal and river defences.

At present, the Environment Agency is responsible for building and maintaining these defences. The agency has told the government it needs to increase its annual flood risk management budget by 9% by 2014-15. However, the House of Commons public accounts committee has highlighted government plans to reduce the agency's flood risk funding by 10% over this period, and to shift more responsibility on to local authorities, even though their overall budgets are shrinking.

Perhaps even more worrying is the neglect of the risk of flash flooding, caused by heavy downpours from often very localised storms that can inundate poorly drained areas, particularly in cities. Of the six million properties in the UK that are currently exposed to some degree of flood risk, four million are threatened by surface water flooding.

Yet when the climate change risk assessment, upon which the government is basing its national adaptation plan, was published earlier this year, scientists warned that it was flawed because it had neglected possible future changes in flash flooding and other important threats.

The assessment stated: "Whilst the number of properties at risk from surface water flooding is similar to the number at risk from tidal and river flooding, suitable information for analysis were not available at the time of writing this report."

In his official review of the assessment, Prof Martin Parry of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College expressed "concern that the risks identified do not necessarily represent the full range of potential risks, and the metrics were selected not on the basis of importance but on the availability of evidence". However, Defra ignored his advice, surprisingly admitting that "the risks provided in this report are not intended to be a full range of risks".

This lack of attention to flash flooding could make it much more difficult to implement an important part of the government's national planning policy framework, which states that local plans "should apply a sequential, risk-based approach to the location of development to avoid where possible flood risk to people and property and manage any residual risk, taking account of the impacts of climate change".

The likely increase in the risk of flooding is just one of the many ways in which unmitigated climate change will significantly affect homes and businesses, and will create larger societal and economic costs for the UK. These serious long-term impacts are often overlooked by those who complain about the cost of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to limit the future impacts of climate change, yet they are just as important.

• Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Drowning World exhibition is showing at Somerset House until 5 June. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 30 2011

Float on

At Brockholes – a wildlife reserve near Preston – the floating visitor centre offers a reassuring glimpse into a flood-proof future

If you turn off the M6, on the ragged edge of Preston, and follow some brown badger signs through a series of truck-filled roundabouts and ramps, you suddenly see a huddle of roofs above a lake, which look like a bronze-age settlement. The view recalls those meticulous yellow-brown reconstructions you get in old, earnest children's books, and you half expect to see men carrying spears and dead deer, and the smoke of a campfire.

It is in fact a brand-new visitor centre for the just-opened Brockholes nature reserve, and rather than spear-carriers you see citizens of local cities wearing sensible outdoor clothes. It is a complex of buildings with claims on the future rather than the distant past, in that it aims to be extraordinarily sustainable. And it floats.

Brockholes sits on a concrete raft, made buoyant by hollow chambers, held by four steel posts to stop it drifting across the lake. This is the building's way of dealing with flooding, to which the site is prone. It can rise up to three metres, which would only be necessary in a catastrophe, but will regularly go up and down by 400mm over a year. Whether we are immersed by the effects of climate change or simply persist in our fondness for building on flood plains, floating buildings might come to seem like a very good idea. "People have been in denial about flood risk," says the building's architect, Adam Khan.

Brockholes is an overlap of wildness and industry. It has been formed over 10 years out of a former gravel quarry, with a range of habitats added to existing woodlands and water to "create a microcosm of what old Lancashire was like". It has been "carefully crafted" to attract different species and is aimed less at dedicated bird-watchers and nature lovers than the general public of the big cities an hour's drive or so away – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds – and at tourists on their way to the nearby Lake District. The idea is to introduce people to nature who don't see enough of it.

Its buildings serve the usual needs of such places – cafe, shop, information – but also host a large education space and a series of conference rooms that will be rented out to generate income. Naturally, in such a place, they have to be scrupulously environmental, and so they are designed to achieve the "outstanding" category in the official measure of such things. (The British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, if you really want to know, or Breeam.) Until recently, buildings could only be "good" or "excellent"; Brockholes is on course to be the first building in its particular niche to achieve "outstanding", although the final judgment will not be made until it has been in use for a while.

Breeam concerns itself with everything from heating and ventilation to the height of light fixtures off the ground, to the sources of materials, the energy that goes into materials, their durability, their potential for recycling, and the distance they travel to the site.

Often, the pursuit of Breeam's approval leads buildings to pursue a box-ticking series of technical fixes, and an assembly of products designed to fulfil their requirements without much thought to how they look and feel. At Brockholes, Adam Khan wanted to challenge this "factoid-led" approach, and use the pursuit of sustainability as the means to create more beautiful buildings, not less.

So he designed high, steep-pitched roofs enclosing large volumes (good for air circulation and extraction), clad in oak shakes – rough tiles formed out of tree stumps, which would otherwise be burned as waste. Gutters are in copper (long-life, recyclable), which adds a touch of luxury. Ventilation is entirely natural. The roofs are held up with timber beams made in a precise German process, and arrive on the site "as sharp as pencils". Insulation is a cheap but effective stuff made from recycled newspapers.

Then, charmingly, the building connects with its natural surroundings in a way that cannot be measured by technical indices. Because it floats, it has an intimacy with the water that it would lack if it were ringed with defences against flooding: the water is turned from an enemy into an ally. Reed beds have been planted around the building so that when they are fully grown the roofs will seem to emerge from them. From within, visitors will – in places – be able to look into the reeds, and into spaces carved out of them "like crop circles". In other places they will look onto open water.

The complex's buildings are arranged around a series of courtyards, which provide both a sense of enclosure and openness to views, and one of which is planted with a little orchard. The oak roofs change in the weather, from black in rain to gold in sun. Nor is it a matter of sight alone: the natural materials have distinctive scents, and the newspaper insulation of the cafe gives an echo-less acoustic "like a hay barn". The wobbly oak and the copper are tactile.

The experience is not one of the building or of nature alone, but of the two together, and comes from a certain openness: to what was already on the site, to its possibilities, to ancient and modern materials, to high and low technology. There is also an interest in what things are as much as what they look like – how they feel and work, and how they combine, rather than in the single glamour shot. It does not strive for effect, but lets the effect grow out of its situation.

There are some clunks: extract flues poke through the roofs; it is on the edge of folksy, and worthy, albeit offset by playful disco moments such as reflective light fittings and, at one point, a mirrored vault; and without the vegetation fully grown, it looks raw. But it is rare that the stuff of a building, as well as its relationship to nature, gives so much pleasure. The interior of the cafe – with its high roof, the big, taut Vs of the German beams, the grey fuzz of the newspaper insulation, the sideways views of water and orchard, its reflected light and touches of colour – offers a rare and delightful balance of energies.

As for the floating, the cost consultants Jackson Coles, who played an active role in making Khan's ideas possible, found that the expense was reasonable. The costs compared well with building (as is common) on a large amount of concrete set in the ground, making what are known as raft foundations. "If you have raft foundations," the great architect and thinker Cedric Price once said, "why not have a raft?"

At Brockholes, someone has finally taken up his suggestion. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 15 2010

Rising sea levels threaten cities

Hull and Portsmouth could be dramatically remodelled, suggests report

Hull could be transformed into a Venice-like waterworld and Portsmouth into a south coast version of Amalfi, engineers and architects have claimed in a study of options for developing Britain's coastal cities in the face of rising sea levels.

The Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects yesterday warned the future of cities including London, Bristol and Liverpool was at risk from seas which the Environment Agency predict could rise by as much as 1.9m by 2095 in the event of a dramatic melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

The report, Facing up to Rising Sea Levels. Retreat? Defence? Attack?, suggests swaths of Hull and Portsmouth's city centres could be allowed to flood over the next 100 years and large parts of the populations moved out.

In a model that explores managed retreat from the coast in some areas, Hull's historic city centre would be limited to an island reached by bridges and Venetian-style water taxis, while in Portsmouth large parts of Portsea island would be given back to the sea while new "hillside living" developments would be built on densely packed hillside terraces, akin to the towns of Italy's Amalfi coast. "The scenarios we have created are extreme, but it is an extreme threat we are facing," said Ruth Reed, Riba president. "Approximately 10 million people live in flood-risk areas in England and Wales, with 2.6m properties directly at risk of flooding."

Other options include building out into rising waters using piers and platforms to create new habitable space – a strategy known as "attack". In Hull this could involve floating disused oil rigs up the Humber and reusing them for offices, homes and university buildings, while in Portsmouth two-storey piers could be built with the lower tier used for traffic and the top tier used for pedestrian space.

Architect David West, one of the report's author's, admitted the proposals were "blue sky thinking" and uncosted, but said they had the potential to relieve pressure for housing on inland sites. "I think the concept of arriving at Hull as if you were arriving at Venice airport and taking a boat into the city is really exciting."

The proposals were met with scepticism in Portsmouth. "A retreating coastline in this area would have a significant detrimental impact on the internationally designated harbours," said Bret Davies, a coastal strategy manager at Portsmouth city council.

The Environment Agency's coastal policy adviser, Nick Hardiman, warned that extending into the sea was likely to be too expensive and structures were not likely to be sustainable.In the next financial year the Environment Agency will spend £570m on building and maintaining flood defences. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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