For the people of Yorkshire, England, floods are increasingly a fact of life. These cost billions of dollars to recover from, and can even risk people’s lives.

The region has had to adapt to its changing weather; redesigning its cities and its rivers to cope. These lessons, learned early, are useful for other places facing similar problems.

GovInsider spoke with Neil Dewis, Director of Yorkshire Water, to look at how urban redesign, weather prediction models and nature-based solutions can tackle the issue of urban flooding.

Redesigning cities

Here are the steps Yorkshire has to mitigate flood and drought risks as the weather patterns change.

First, the counties have created ‘blue spaces’, just as 20th century urban planning prioritised new parks and greenery. These ponds and lakes are not only scenic, but they also “hold the water back”, Dewis says, and are more attractive than large walls and barricades.

Yorkshire Water, along with the UK’s Environment Agency and two municipal councils, launched the Living With Water initiative to change urban planning, which used to deal with floods by building underground tanks to hold excess water. “We’re working on changing the whole way we plan water and infrastructure within a city,” Dewis says. “It’s almost a cultural change”.

Second, they have found an age-old solution to help guide the waters. Rather than building concrete dams to stop the flow of water, they are planting trees and other types of foliage as well as getting innovative in working with existing nature-based features.

For instance, Yorkshire Water is changing the way the moors in the west of its region are managed. “The moorland can act as a sponge if it’s in pristine condition,” says Dewis. Knowing this, the company is actively encouraging the growth of a special type of moss, known as sphagnum moss, which can absorb a lot of water. The moors can also act as a carbon sink, “so there’s a double benefit,” he says.

Weather-predicting models

Third comes the data. Yorkshire Water works with the UK Meteorological Office on complex predictive tools that will help flood response teams prepare. These models can provide “situational awareness by looking at the weather that might be coming in, where the system currently is and what sort of management choices you can make to operate the system,” explains Dewis.

The water utility has mapped its own flood risks to ensure it can correctly ascertain where resources are most needed. This makes them “able to respond once the rainfall hits”, he says.

“Often, the shock of [a flood] impacts people’s ability to prepare”, says Dewis. Yorkshire Water’s fourth step is to build a national flood resilience centre, a project led by the University of Hull and the Humberside Fire and Rescue Service. The Ark Flood Centre will provide realistic flood simulations so response teams and citizens are not caught off guard.

“The idea is to build a facility where not only the authorities and the services can train and prepare, but also the local community can be exposed to what might happen. It helps people prepare and to be able to recover after the event,” explains Dewis.

Pipes with ears

The county of Yorkshire has been hit by a series of droughts that are attributed to the changing weather and climate patterns. This has meant that even as urban flooding becomes a more frequent occurrence, the dry season is also posing critical problems with depleting ground water levels and risk of drought. So how can cities improve their water infrastructure to cope with the fallouts of climate change?

“Technology can help,” Dewis says. Yorkshire Water is building a smart pipe network, equipped with 40,000 acoustic loggers that will pick up sounds of leaks and reduce water wastage.

A satellite radar also passes over Yorkshire twice a year to identify dry and wet patches in the ground. This information is mapped onto the utility’s pipe infrastructure, so repair teams can “pinpoint leakage much more quickly and accurately,” says Dewis.

This has made repair work much more efficient. “Instead of having somebody walk around 1000km of pipe work – which had been the historic approach – we’re now able to target them to very specific areas,” Dewis explains. “We’re seeing a high degree of success in stopping the leaks using this technology.”

The National Infrastructure Commission, a set of government policy recommendations in the UK, has targeted a 50 per cent cut in pipe leakages in Yorkshire by 2050. “We’re making good progress towards the target,” notes Dewis.

Smart meters

In addition to using cutting edge technology to minimise resource wastage, the utility firm has also deployed smart meters to help manage water demand. This enables customers to track their usage and compare their consumption with other households. “Just having that information changes behaviour,” Dewis notes. “We like to understand our own actions and compare them to other around us.”


“We like to understand our own actions and compare them to others around us”

This technology will also make the system more efficient. The smart meters generate automatic usage readings and save officials from having to manually collect the data from each household.

Involving local communities

Last but not least comes the community. Effective flood resilience takes more than a series of top-down initiatives. Local communities also play a big part in preparing their towns to cope with the impacts of floods and landowners play a particularly important role as the land use decisions, such as to concretize or green a piece of land – lies in their hands.

Earlier this year, Yorkshire Water established the Yorkshire Land Network, bringing together more than 30 per cent of the region’s landowners in a combined effort to reduce flood risk through land management, shares Dewis. “[We’re] working with landowners to change the way they manage the land, to try and get the best use of the land, and to slow the flow down,” he says. “That can be different depending on who the landowner is,” he adds. They might plant more trees, or diversify the flow of water through the land.

Conversations between landowners on the Network revealed that there were “shared problems” within the community in Yorkshire. For instance, landowners agreed that there was a lack of green space in Hull. “Rather than all investing separately, one investment in a green space certainly has multiple benefits for everyone that’s investing,” says Dewis. In March this year, the UK government announced that £200 million (US$231 million) would go to local authorities to further boost flood resilience measures.

Coping with Covid

The pandemic has shaken our businesses and critical infrastructure to the core. How can utilities continue to serve citizens during these uncertain times?

In the UK, the water industry has worked together through the Platinum Incident Management plan – this is the same strategy developed to prepare UK industries for disruptions to supply chains brought about by domestic or external events.

When the pandemic hit, the UK’s water industry turned to the Plan as a “useful platform to manage a multitude of potential scenarios, which may impact the sector at a national and significant level, for example, during floods, droughts and major supply outages,” says Dewis.

This strategy focuses on maintaining a consistent communication between the water industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, along with the rest of the UK government. This allows the government to be constantly updated on “the daily situation and associated risks,” Dewis explains.

The pandemic has meant businesses, including the water utility company, have had to change the way in which the organisation and its people operate. Yorkshire Water continues to serve citizens even with employees now working from home. “In the initial phase of the lockdown, some customer services were reduced to deal with emergency and urgent requests,” says Dewis.

The water utility has since issued over 500 laptops to ensure employees, including customer agents, can work from home. “We are now able to offer most services to customers and we have put additional support in for customers finding payment difficult during the lockdown period,” he notes.

Natural disasters can take a lot out of a city, which is why it pays to be prepared. We may never know when the next big flood, drought or pandemic hits, but beautiful lakes, leafy trees, helpful mosses and mass data analytics make a difference when fighting back.