After the floods, Britain's rain defences put to test

Britain's biggest civil emergency exercise, costing £1.8m and involving 10,000 people, begins today, in response to the country's biggest peacetime emergency – the floods of 2007.

Exercise Watermark is designed to test national readiness for another episode like 2007's disastrous flooding in Yorkshire and the Severn valley in Gloucestershire, which damaged 55,000 properties.

More than 7,000 people had to be rescued, 42,000 people were left without power and 350,000 people had no mains water supply for up to 17 days. And it could have been worse.

If the Ulley reservoir dam near Rotherham had burst – and in June 2007, it nearly did – almost a million people might have been without any power in the Sheffield area.

The floods were so severe the Government commissioned a special study by engineer and former local authority chief executive Sir Michael Pitt, who said in his report that the importance of flood risk should now "be brought up alongside the risk of terrorism or a major flu pandemic".

This week's exercise is to test the new precautionary measures Sir Michael said should be put in place for the possibility of catastrophic flooding.

It will last four days and is being coordinated by the Environment Agency, which will bring together ten government departments, 34 local resilience forums, emergency services, water companies, hospitals and schools to test responses to a range of flood scenarios across England and Wales.

Some of the planned exercises include the evacuation of coastal communities in Lincolnshire, and live floodwater rescues by the RAF from rooftops and submerged vehicles. The Government's crisis response committee, usually referred to as Cobra, will also meet as part of the exercise.

Today, Watermark will test responses to flash flooding across London, West Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall.

Tomorrow, it will look at readiness for overflowing rivers in London, Surrey and the Thames Valley, as well as in the West Mercia police area and Dyfed-Powys in mid-Wales.

On Wednesday, there will be a simulation of a reservoir collapse in Derbyshire; and on Thursday there will be a simulated threat of a North Sea tidal surge hitting the east coast of England from Humberside to Kent.

It was such a surge which caused Britain's biggest modern flooding disaster in January 1953, when 307 people drowned after the North Sea broke through coastal defences.

"If all of that did happen at the same time, I think we would have our work cut out," said the Environment Agency chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury (the former Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith).

"But what we want to do is test all the levels of response we have, the way in which we're prepared for this, the systems we have in place and whether we're ready to cope with these sorts of emergencies in the very best and most professional way we can."

The Environment Minister Richard Benyon, who is the minister responsible for flooding, said: "This is a really major event – it's the largest civil defence exercise that's ever been carried out in this country." He added: "We won't get everything right, we're honest about that. But we will learn from the mistakes and the successes."

One of the new dangers the exercise will examine is the threat from surface water. This is not flooding caused by overflowing rivers or the invading sea, but by rainfall so heavy that urban drainage systems cannot carry it all away and it starts to accumulate, or "pond". This was a feature of the floods in Hull and Doncaster in June 2007.

Sir Michael Pitt said all local authorities should map the threat from surface water flooding.

These maps are now being produced and will be published this summer – some of them will be used in Exercise Watermark.

Tewkesbury and the new threat from rainfall

n Exercise Watermark is being taken so seriously by the Government because what happened in 2007 may be a pointer of things to come: flooding in an age of climate change.

The rain in June, July and August of that year made for the wettest summer Britons had ever seen, breaking all rainfall records, going back to 1766. The two key downpours, which hit Yorkshire, from Hull to Doncaster, on 24 June, and the Severn valley on 19 July, were probably as heavy as anything Britain has experienced.

Although scientists are hesitant to blame climate change for individual weather happenings, there is no doubt these "extreme events" are consistent with predictions of global warming, which scientists think will lead to much heavier rainfall because a warming atmosphere holds more water and energy.

In 2004, the government published the Foresight Future Flooding report, which warned about the heavier rainfall expected in a warmer atmosphere over a 30 to 100-year timescale.

Sir Michael Pitt reassessed the Foresight report's conclusions for his review – and came out with a gloomier forecast. The potential increase in winter precipitation because of climate change was projected to be 25 per cent in the original report; it was 40 per cent in the revised predictions.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Tax Manager / Accountant

£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Operative

£6 - £15 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a well e...

Recruitment Genius: Data Scientist

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Full Stack Software Developer - Javascript

£18000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen