This week, Storm Christoph brought heavy rain to very wet ground and full rivers. Today, I joined the Prime Minister who visited Didsbury in Greater Manchester where properties were evacuated. When we arrived the channel leading to the flood storage area was filled with a torrent of water draining from the River Mersey towards the flood storage basin. A stark reminder of how fast water can move.
The local response has been characteristic of the great community spirit we see in England during flood incidents, with neighbours helping each other get out of harm’s way despite anxiety about coronavirus. I was also struck by the warmth from the community to the Environment Agency, passing the rugby club we were offered chocolate and coffee just to say thank you.
Levels of water in the River Mersey have broken records. The distance between safety and a threat to people’s lives was a matter of centimetres, but defences held firm, the Didsbury flood basin protects around 3,000 properties, and across Greater Manchester as a whole we estimate over 23,000 properties were protected. We are now bringing down the water levels in Didsbury’s vast flood basin (which is equivalent to more than 310 Olympic size swimming pools) to be ready for the next rainfall.
The multi-agency response has been excellent. We worked closely with our partners on the ground in the police, fire services, water companies and local resilience forums to warn and inform, operate flood defences and keep people safe. At all points the local team have been working in a covid secure way, in some cases putting up barriers early to ensure teams can maintain 2 metre distancing. Throughout the pandemic we have followed the Government guidance based on the most up to date scientific knowledge provided by SAGE and others.
“What I’m seeing here is the amazing operations that the Environment Agency makes. The way in they are able to use flood gates, use improvised emergency flood defences to protect homes. I think 10,000 homes in the Manchester area – the Didsbury area – have been protected just as a result of what they’ve been doing overnight. There will be more to come. There will be further rain next week, so it’s vital for people in potentially impacted areas to follow the advice, and get the Environment Agency flood alerts where they can. You can get them on an app, which lets you know what’s going on. I just want to thank the Environment Agency, the emergency services, police for everything they’re doing.”
Every flooded home is a personal tragedy, so while we can never prevent all flooding, we will always do everything we can to protect communities at risk. The experience of Didsbury this week shows the importance of investing in creating and maintaining flood defences. In Greater Manchester, we have invested £60.7 million in flood defences since 2010, providing better protection for around 6,150 homes.
Money for flood protection is also an investment in the two other things the country needs right now: economic development, and a way of improving health and wellbeing by enhancing green and blue spaces. However, as the EA spokesperson Lee Rawlinson told the media this morning, the danger has not yet passed everywhere. Although the rain stopped falling in many places where people live, it continued on the high ground which means that river levels will continue to rise and fall throughout the country.
As bleak as it might sound, we are only just over halfway through winter and the ground is sodden. That means any further rainfall, even if just “normal” amounts, brings increased flood risk. The Environment Agency will continue our response, deploying temporary flood defences and closing flood barriers where necessary. The best thing you can do is remain vigilant, and continue to check flood risk via our free flood warnings on GOV.UK. More Flood Warnings, potentially including Severe Flood Warnings (which means a threat to life), will be issued.
Although there has always been flooding in this country we know that the climate emergency is bringing more intense rainfall events. Earlier this week I spoke at a conference about how local communities are vital in the response to this global challenge. This year, the UK hosts the international (COP26) climate summit in Glasgow. With President Biden recommitting the US to the Paris Agreement, this is a key moment to address our impact on the environment through carbon emissions, and better prepare the world for climate shocks like storms. Those ambitions may seem lofty, but they will be delivered and experienced by local communities like Didsbury.
I would like to thank everyone at the Environment Agency and Defra, our partners, and communities throughout England for their work so far this winter.