U.K. critical infrastructure vulnerable

Published 3 July 2008

New report says last summer’s flood showed infrastructure’s vulnerability; funding for flood defenses was not sufficient or secure, undermining industry confidence, and there were not enough skilled engineers to deliver the protection from flooding needed

The U.K. power, water, and transport systems need extra capacity to prevent blackouts and shortages when the country is hit by floods in the future, a report warned yesterday. The study from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) said last year’s devastating summer floods, which left thousands of people without water or electricity and shut down the road and rail network, showed how vulnerable the country’s infrastructure was. ICE’s flooding group chairman David Balmforth warned that the systems which supply power, water and other essentials were “stretched to maximum capacity” with no extra “tucked away for when things go wrong.” The ICE said with an increasing risk of flooding in the United Kingdom, they remained vulnerable to being hit by the kind of events seen last summer. Investment in new infrastructure had been reduced by economic and regulatory pressure to the point where “there is no longer any spare capacity available to provide alternative sources of power or water treatment should key utilities be compromised by flooding.”

The Flooding: Engineering Resilience report also said funding for flood defenses was not sufficient or secure, undermining industry confidence, and there were not enough skilled engineers to deliver the protection from flooding needed. Balmforth said: “The fact is we are now facing an increasing risk of flooding in this country and there is only so much you can do to protect the networks. If we want to prevent blackouts, water shortages and transportation failures, we need to ensure we have enough spare capacity in the system to deal with disaster. Basically we need to make our critical infrastructure a little less critical.” The report called on utility companies to do more than just meet the bare minimum of standards for flood defenses at sites and said they must be able to provide an adequate level of services in an emergency. ICE president David Orr said: “If we stretch our critical infrastructure to work at 100 per cent of capacity, then any failure will mean a severe loss of service. We need to invest to make sure our infrastructure is resilient, so even if one plant gets flooded, there will be some spare capacity so that people still get services.”

The report also said increases in spending on flood defenses are “unlikely” to be enough, and measures to combat flooding are being hampered by ineffective expenditure, stop-start funding and a failure to ringfence the cash. It called for secure, long-term funding and for steps to ensure developers share the costs of improving flood resilience and land drainage. The report said more than £230 billion of assets are sited on a range of defended and undefended flood plains in England and Wales. Some two million homes are currently at risk of flooding — 10 percent of all homes in the United Kingdom — and a proportion of the three million planned new properties will be in flood risk areas. A DEFRA spokeswoman said the government was working to ensure that infrastructure was resistant to flooding and robust back-up was in place where it was most needed. She said: “Work includes assessing the vulnerability of infrastructure to natural hazards, and working with industry and operators to ensure it’s resilient. “More details on this work will be provided as part of our formal response to the Pitt report.”