UK Flood Threat: Defra Taking Action

By Anne Freeman 16 May, 2016

Flooding is the UK's greatest threat. Anne Freeman from UK's defra shares why it's so important to act now, Flooding is the UK's greatest threat. Anne Freeman from UK's defra shares why it's so important to act now

The UK govt to spend GBP2.3 bn over the next 6 years on flood risk to save up to GBP30 bn in avoided damages
defra engages with China via CEWP; Pearl River Delta facing increased risk from flooding, typhoons & more
Everyone has role to play (govt, insurers etc.); if we don't act now economic stability will suffer & opportunities missed
Anne Freeman
Author: Anne Freeman
Anne has spent the past two years leading the Government workstreams in the novel and complex joint industry and Government programme to deliver Flood Re. This has involved putting in place the legislative framework, delivering key property tax data and developing Flood Re’s accountability to the UK Parliament. Anne also currently leads Defra’s policy on coastal erosion, improving property and community level resilience and is a trained manager of the national Emergency Operations Centre, which operates during strategically significant flooding. In her varied 20 year career, Anne has led diverse policy areas ranging from water quality, the environmental impacts of shale gas (fracking), to food, farming and trade. She has worked in the European Commission in Brussels, in operational areas which deliver directly to the public and in Whitehall.
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Flooding is the greatest threat the UK faces, as identified by the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment. Now, according to a new report by the World Bank (May 2016), water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6 percent of their GDP, spur migration and spark conflict.

With such high stakes China Water Risk sat down with Anne Freeman, Acting Deputy Director of the Public Bodies Team of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra) to see how they are acting to mitigate such significant flood and climate risks. With our interconnected world, we also talk about defra’s engagements outside of the UK, including China where their seems a bright future for sponge cities (more here). Whether in the UK or in China the time to act is now.

China Water Risk (CWR): What are the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (defra) key takeaways from COP 21 in December last year?

Anne Freeman (AF): Governments cannot act alone, all parts of society, including businesses and investors have a role to play. Paris has already resulted in transformational action that will have a real impact on the ground in countries, cities and communities around the world.

Countries now need to implement this Agreement. Our priority at home is to reduce emissions in the most cost-effective way and keep bills as low as possible for hardworking families and businesses. Government support has already driven down the cost of renewable energy significantly, helping technologies to stand on their own two feet.

CWR: What is defra’s key climate focuses at the moment?

AF: The UK Government is clear in its commitment to climate change action. That’s why we are investing GBP2.3 billion over the next six years in flood and coastal erosion risk management and we pushed for an ambitious global deal in Paris later last year.

The UK govt is investing GBP2.3 bn over the next 6 years in flood & coastal erosion risk management

We are preparing for the impacts of climate change, including the increased threat of extreme weather and flooding, primarily through the implementation of the first National Adaptation Programme report which Government (defra) published in July 2013. This sets out more than 370 actions across key sectors involving government, business, councils, civil society and academia.

For instance we are taking action across the breadth of defra policies, from our GBP2.3 billion flood defence programme to the Forestry Commission changing the trees it plants so they are appropriate for a changed climate.

The framework for Government activity is set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. Adaptation is integrated within policies and programmes across government.

CWR: It’s clear from COP21 that China will have a big impact on the climate. Do you work with China/do any work in China?

AF: defra’s Secretary of State signed a Declaration in Beijing with the Ministry of Water Resources for the second work programme of the China Europe Water Platform (CEWP).

Launched in 2012, the CEWP aims to promote an exchange of experiences and co-operation regarding water challenges. It supports a network of contacts and activities to support European and Chinese companies to coordinate and work together with the Chinese government to deliver improved water and environmental conditions in China.

The Platform is developing a greater understanding of the major water sector investment programs in China, identifying the businesses involved in these and how EU Small and Medium-sized Enterprises can find opportunities to work with Chinese companies.

We work with China though the China Europe Water Platform

We are also keen to work with China on the exciting programme creating Sponge Cities

It has also catalogued the various water sector research programmes in Europe and China and the key institutions involved. The aim is to facilitate joint research efforts by coordinating funding from both the Chinese and European research funding agencies in partnership programmes involving institutions from both regions.

We are also keen to work with China on the exciting programme creating Sponge Cities. The concept of the Sponge City is to better absorb rain to improve the environment, with low impact development solutions for storm water runoff and sustainable solutions for water management in cities.

Central Chinese government grants are provided for cities that apply for and win Sponge City status. There are 16 Sponge Cities in the first batch (which include Zhuhai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Xiamen, and Zhenjiang) and each of the 16 Sponge Cities will be allocated between 400 and 600 million yuan for their projects each year. About 130 cities across the country plan to turn themselves into Sponge Cities.

CWR: What climate risks is the Pearl River Delta facing?


  • Increased risk from flooding (from river, sea and surface water);
  • Potentially more frequent and higher intensity typhoons or storms;
  • Rising sea-levels; and
  • Rising temperatures and prolonged period of drought.

CWR: Do you see a role for finance in dealing with these risks and the transition to low carbon growth? If so, what role?

AF: I think everybody has a role and responsibility. Investment can be made in low carbon technology. Capital can be shifted away from carbon-intensive industries.

CWR: And the same question for insurance?

AF: Insurers can incentivise behaviour by providing insurance that changes people’s behaviour. For example, they can incentivise people to install resilience measures in their homes (e.g. flood doors, basement pump), or take measures which mean floods cause less damage (like moving electric wiring higher up walls, having stone or concrete rather than wooden floors).

Insurers have huge amounts of capital they can move away from heavily carbon-producing industries

Insurers also have huge amounts of capital and they can move their capital away from heavily carbon-producing industries, and that could have a powerful impact.



CWR: How can policies reflect these risks and new growth models? How does defra shape this?

AF: The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment identified flooding as the greatest threat UK faces. One thing is sure– there is not one solution, a multi-pronged approach will be needed. Not only Government and industry, but also businesses and individuals will need to act.

Flooding is the greatest threat the UK faces

Investing GBP2.3 bn to save GBP30 bn in avoided damages

Mitigation is important and particularly in reducing greenhouse gases. defra is supporting an industry led Agriculture Industry Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, which has delivered annual reductions of 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. defra is working to plant 11 million trees in the next 5 years. Our forests act as a net carbon sink of 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. We are also acting to reduce waste and the emissions from waste. Emissions from waste have decreased since 2010 by 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent due to landfill diversion policies and gas management systems.

Adaptation is critical too. The government is making a record level 6 year commitment of GBP2.3 billion to invest in flood defence improvement schemes. This is forecasted to reduce the risk for over 300,000 households, up to 420,000 acres of agricultural land, 205 miles of railway and 340 miles of roads. The programme is projected to reduce overall flood risk by 5% and save the economy more than GBP30 billion in avoided damage over time.

The funding for flood defences in England is based on a partnership approach. Central Government funding pulls in GBP600m in additional contributions from businesses and local government. Investment decisions are made on the basis of maximizing economic benefits in terms of the potential damages of flooding or coastal erosion avoided, taking account of local choices and priorities.

Mitigation, Adaptation & Planning all play a role in mitigating risks

Planning plays a role too. The UK’s National Planning Policy is clear that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided. But where development is necessary, it should be made safe and resilient, and without increasing flood risk elsewhere. Under the National Planning Policy Framework, local plans should develop policies to manage flood risk from all sources and seek to use opportunities offered by new development to reduce the causes and impacts of flooding.

Then there is the UK’s Climate Change Act introduced a power for government to direct public services organizations and statutory undertakers, to report on how they are assessing and acting on the risks and opportunities from a changing climate. The reports cover an assessment of current and predicted impacts to the organisation as well as how the organisation plans to adapt to the impacts. In the first round of reporting 91 organisations were directed to report, largely infrastructure companies in the energy, transport and water sectors as well as the economic regulators.

Reports from public services orgs feed directly into the UK’s national Climate Change Risk Programmes

In the second round of reporting which started in 2013 the government is using a voluntary approach to reporting, in which all the main players from the last round of reporting are participating, as well as a others. Reports under the second round are anticipated between 2014 and 2016 and will feed into the next Climate Change Risk Assessment and National Adaptation Programme.


CWR: For a water-secure tomorrow, what in your opinion are the key priorities for today?

AF: Start acting now. The longer we delay, the worse the problems get and the harder it is to solve them. Some of the changes needed, will be behavioural (e.g. about wasting less water) and so will take time and need leadership to deliver. Others are costly (e.g. building water treatment plants or flood defences).

“Start acting now.

If we do nothing to boost our resilience… the stability of the economy will suffer and will miss out on vast opportunities for growth.”

If we do not learn from the past, we continue to make the same mistakes. If we act now, the adaptations we have to make are less burdensome. I think it is about seeing this as an opportunity rather than a burden.

Opportunities do exist. And the risks of not acting are so serious. If we do nothing to boost our resilience to a changing climate, the stability of the economy will suffer and will miss out on vast opportunities for growth.


Further Reading

  • Sponge Cities: An Answer To Floods – Floods have cost China close to RMB2 trillion between 2000-2014. Today, with 641 cities in China are prone to flood risk, the government has turned to sponge city pilots. Do they work? How much do they cost? China Water Risk’s Xu reviews
  • Water SMART Blue Buildings For Sustainable Urbanisation – Complete coverage of centralized water & sewage systems may never be possible in China, so what can one do? Ecosoftt’s Stanley Samuel & Marcus Lin share how their Water SMART Blue Buildings Standard can be a valid alternative
  • A New Model In Village Water Management – Water projects in China suffer from sustainability issues. Ivanna Tan from Lien Aid on how their Village Water Management programme overcomes these issues and has delivered clean & sustainable water to more than 72,000 rural villagers
  • China: Gaps in Rainy Day Funding – Given increasing economic losses & negative impacts on food production due to extreme weather, China Water Risk’s Hu highlights gaps in flood control investment and expands on how the Chinese government expects to finance rainy days ahead
  • Water Risk & National Security – With the China’s largest surface freshwater reserves, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau glaciers shrinking by 15% (an area equivalent to 11.5 “Singapores’), we review US military views on how climate change impacts national security & China’s current stance
  • Societal Relevance of Flood Risk Modelling – Economic losses due to flooding amounted USD19 billion and will grow. Wouter Jan Klerk from Deltares shares cases from Vietnam, China & the Netherlands showing why flood risk modelling is a must for robust growth
  • COP21: 5 Takeaways from Paris – The Paris Agreement signals that the threat is real. Time is running out, especially for water. Inaction means growing costs and with financial risks across sectors also on the rise, CWR’s Thieriot shares key takeaways from COP21
  • Paris Water Pact: Feeling Blue – The rise of water at COP was evidenced by the Paris Pact for Water and Adaptation, Delta Coalition & the Megacities Coalition on Water. However, we are still feeling blue, CWR’s McGregor expands