Insurers, lenders and local authorities join forces to boost flood resilience for SMEs

Pictured: Dr Paola Sakai

A project to promote a better understanding of the impact of flooding on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and help them to become more resilient has been carried out in the Yorkshire and Humber region.

The findings of –  ‘Bridging the knowledge gap to boost SME resilience’ – are being presented at a virtual event on Wednesday 21 April, 9.30am – 11.30am.

Book your place at the free event.

The aim of the project, which started in November 2019, was to work with a range of different sectors including insurers, lenders and local authorities across the region to provide better and more tailored support for SMEs resulting in a more resilient sector.

SMEs make up 99% of Yorkshire’s private sector and they are most likely to be vulnerable to flooding. The knock–on effects to the regional economy of a flood event are significant and far-reaching, however there is a lack of knowledge about the economic impacts of flooding on SMEs.

How the findings will help SMEs and local authorities

Dr Paola Sakai, UKRI Research and Innovation fellow, who has been leading this partnership from the University of Leeds, said: “We are really excited to be sharing the findings of this project about the innovative ways of increasing flood resilience which will benefit both local authorities and SMEs.

“The results of this project are helping to fill the gap in knowledge identified in my previous study in terms of the economic costs of flooding on SMEs and the effectiveness of property flood protection.

“This lack of information is causing significant challenges for SMEs, insurers and lenders, surveyors and brokers, as well as local and regional authorities and the central government.

“My recommendations were submitted to Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and I’m happy that after over a year of work we have made progress on some of the recommendations and are having an impact.

“A key part of this project has been to develop a robust methodology to help local authorities assess the direct and indirect costs of flooding in a more consistent and timely way.

“Our data will also provide evidence to help local authorities to prepare more robust business plans and lobby for additional funding to ensure they can be better prepared to respond to flooding in the future.”

“Another part of the project has been the close collaboration we have had with lenders, insurers, surveyors and brokers. The tool we co-developed allows them to better assess the risk facing SMEs in areas at risk of flooding, as well as allowing SMEs to increase their own awareness of flood risk. If we want to have a more resilient SMEs sector, we all need to play a part.”

Innovative tools developed through the project

Two innovative tools that will contribute to flood resilience for SMEs have been developed with partners including University of Leeds, University of York, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), West Yorkshire Combined Authorities, the Environment Agency, the Yorkshire Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, flood risk managers from across the Yorkshire and Humber region, Sedgwick, Brodgen Consultants, DEFRA Flood Resilience Roundtable, Upper Calder Valley Renaissance, the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.

The first is a Tool to Assess the Economic Costs of flooding on SMEs (TAEC), which aims to increase the capacity of local authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber, to carry out assessments of the indirect and direct impact of flooding on SMEs in a consistent and timely way in the future.

The second tool is to Assess the Effectiveness of Resilience Measures (TAER) developed by working with lenders, insurers, surveyors, and brokers. This will allow them to offer better and more tailored products for SMEs as they will be based on a better understanding of the sector’s risk. Flood insurance is an essential flood risk management strategy for SMEs. The tool will help to ensure risk is accurately priced and flood risk is properly management by SMEs.

Read more about the project

Dr Sakai is also working on another iCASP project being run as part of the Yorkshire Future Flood Resilience Pathfinder. The Pathfinder focuses on encouraging people to put in place measures that protect their own property to avoid losses.

Meet Dr Janet Richardson – proud winner of Water Woman Award 2021 (Societal Impact)

Dr Janet Richardson

A prestigious award has been won by Dr Janet Richardson, an Impact Translation Fellow with iCASP, for both her achievement in the world of research and power to inspire other women.

On International day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February) she was amongst those honoured with the Water Woman Award 2021. 

Dr Janet Richardson, who was winner of the award category for Societal Impact, said: “I am delighted to receive this award. I hope my career pathway and different ways of working across disciplines, departments and with stakeholders can be inspirational to women at different stages of their career.

“The impact of research is high on the agenda for most universities. I think others can learn from my work translating research into practical solutions, how effective relationships are key to success and that knowledge comes from an exchange of ideas.”

Which iCASP research projects has Janet got involved in? 

Janet is about to help launch a project that uses modelling to determine the flood related impact of different natural flood management (NFM) interventions in the Don and Rother catchment to understand which interventions are likely to be most effective. This new work builds on the Hidden Heritage Streams project which mapped NFM opportunities to help slow the flow, decrease diffuse pollution and increase ecological connectivity at the landscape-scale. It helped secure funding for the first NFM officer dedicated to the area.

Other iCASP projects Janet has led relate to data collation, mapping and monitoring on the River Derwent, a tributary of the River Ouse Invasive Non-Native Species , Payment for Outcomes and smaller projects such as Skell and Ryevitalise.

What is Janet’s background?

Janet has a background in Earth Sciences, especially in fluvial geomorphology (looking at how water can mould landscapes), hydrology (the study of the movement, distribution, and management of water on Earth) and sedimentology (how sediments such as sand, silt, and clay are formed and move through different systems). Janet uses a range of methods for her work including Geographic Information Systems (GIS), laboratory work (for example, dating sediment, grain size analysis) and fieldwork.

Her PhD on the evolution of ancient river systems in South Africa involved investigating erosion rates and source-to-sink analysis and answered questions on how much erosion has occurred in south Africa, how the river systems have changed over thousands of years, and where the sediment is now – a novel way of investigating the entire sedimentary system from its ultimate upstream source to the ultimate sediment sink (deposition of sediment) most commonly on deep basin plains and analysis of drainage basins. She has also worked on characterising mixed bedrock alluvial rivers in Wales.

Janet completed a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded fellowship to work closely with Yorkshire Water to use high resolution satellite imagery and GIS to map sediment sources and pathways within the River Derwent. She has also spent a year in industry as an environmental consultant where she gained experience of assessing water company drought plans and completing environmental and habitat regulation assessments.

How did you become interested in earth sciences – and at what age?

I became interested in rivers at secondary school – I was very lucky to have fantastic teachers that always pushed me to do my best. One of my favourite school trips was to look at rivers in Ireland, with the classic ‘through a tangerine in the river’ exercise to see where the thalweg was (a line joining the lowest points along the entire length of the river bed defining its deepest channel and its natural direction).

I didn’t actually know anything about earth sciences when I applied to university but managed to change my UCAS application to physical geography and geology. From then on I knew that geomorphology would be my career pathway and I developed the love for sedimentology during undergraduate degree and my PhD. During my career I have got to travel the world (in fact my first time outside of Europe was for my PhD research in South Africa!) and to be outdoors, which I love.

What advice would you give to other women starting their career in scientific research?

I think the biggest thing I have learnt is to not to be afraid to ask questions and to try and push yourself to learn new skills or new disciplines – so be inquisitive and be disciplined. There are multiple routes through academia and industry, speak to as many people as you can to understand these different pathways to see what will suit you best. My role as an Impact Translation Fellow is relatively new within academia – new pathways pop up all the time. 

Why is research translation important?

Impact and research translation are important to ensure that research is actually used to have societal and economic benefits in the world. Without this, important information can be hidden behind a paywall and never actually benefit the world we live in. The role of iCASP is to make research and tools useable, for example, applying the research to a new area, or making a tool have an interface so more people can use it.  It is important to note that knowledge exchange is a two-way process, and that it’s not only universities that hold information. There is a wealth of information within organisations that can help others with similar problems, processes and best practice – iCASP helps join these networks up to ensure we have the best solutions to environmental problems in Yorkshire.

What have you learnt from working with partners?

I have learnt a lot from working with partners; the great thing about iCASP projects is that we often work across disciplines. I have access to a wide range of information that has helped me become a more rounded scientist. It’s also interesting to learn how different organisations work and how geomorphology is used across different sectors and departments. Without working so closely with partners, we wouldn’t know the current challenges and opportunities to aim for.

Which project are you most proud of and why?

I am proud of my work with Yorkshire Water on the River Derwent as it was the first time I was awarded research funding as a principle investigator. Through this project I got to develop a network which has helped shaped my career, publish an open access paper on the research and it has formed the foundation of future fellowship applications. I am also proud of the iCASP projects related to natural flood management, through our payment for outcomes project we are directly feeding into current issues and government policy, whilst the work on the Skell helped secure some Heritage Lottery funding to tackle the sediment and flooding issues in the catchment.

What motivates you to get up in a morning?

Knowing that my work is making a difference. Through iCASP we get to work with a wide range of stakeholders and can actively see how the translated research is being used.

This is the second year for the award scheme launched by water@leeds, in partnership with Athena Swan teams at University of Leeds which shines a light on women who help secure competitive research funds and produce world-class research in an academic world in which the hurdles are still greater for females.

The scheme recognises the value of female researchers across all disciplines, including those in supporting roles, whose work contributes to the mission of water@leeds

New iCASP project – Creating an evidence directory of natural flood management: The Upper Rother Catchment

The use of natural flood management (NFM) has been championed in recent years due to its multiple benefits and resilience to climate change. NFM incorporates such interventions as leaky dams, tree planting, and offline storage ponds, but can also include different soil management techniques such as changes in tillage practices to reduce compaction. There is an increasing need to quantify the impacts of NFM including flood risk and their multiple benefits in order to establish, for example, payment bands in ‘Payment for Outcomes’ schemes.  

This project aims to quantify the flood risk benefits for different intervention scenarios in the Upper Rother Catchment, South Yorkshire & North East Derbyshire. It will provide an evidence directory for the Upper Rother, which will enable on the ground interventions to be placed with a quantified impact on flood risk.   

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Figure showing common NFM interventions: leaky dam, hedge laying, offline pond and soil management. Thanks to the Don Catchment Rivers Trust and Les Firbank for the images.  

Our new Upper Rother Catchment iCASP project team consists of Dr Janet Richardson and Dr Thomas Willis, iCASP impact translation fellows; Dr Debbie Coldwell and Dr Edward Shaw, Don Catchment Rivers Trust (DCRT); lead academic Dr Megan Klaar, University of Leeds and Prof. Colin Brown, University of York.  

Dr Debbie Coldwell, NFM officer for the Don Catchment Rivers Trust, said: “We are very excited to be able to continue our work with iCASP which will allow us to take a more strategic approach to our NFM work, targeting areas that will have the greatest impact on reducing flood risk in and around Chesterfield. Having a better understanding of the scale of the works required to have a meaningful impact on reducing flood risk and what we need to do to achieve that will be incredibly valuable to the project and is not something we would have had the resources to do on our own”.   

The project aims to quantify the flood risk benefits (in terms of flood peak and time to peak) for different intervention types in the Upper Rother and River Hipper sub-catchments. In order to do this, SD-TOPMODEL will be used which is a hydrological model capable of modelling flow through a catchment and can be modified to represent different interventions. The biggest advantage of using SD-TOPMODEL for the modelling is the ability to integrate soil management techniques, as the flow of water within the model can interpret different types of flow including overland and sub-surface. 

Soil management is a vital aspect of NFM and offers many benefits, including flood management, as well as more efficient crop growth, water quality improvements and carbon storage. It is also likely to benefit the landowner’s business and therefore may have a higher uptake. Working with key partners in the region (including the Don Catchment Rivers Trust NFM steering board – Environment Agency, Derbyshire County Council, North East Derbyshire District Council, Chesterfield Borough Council); different scenarios will be prioritised and tested, for example, tree planting and soil management (including soil drainage improvement through introduction of organic material, reduced grazing stock in fields, reducing compaction from vehicles and reducing access for livestock to the riparian zone). This will allow the different intervention impacts to be quantified, which will allow for prioritisation of interventions whilst developing a strategic vision for the catchment (for example, how many interventions are needed to produce a 5% reduction in flood risk? Where are the interventions best placed for the biggest impacts?).  The applicability of SD-TOPMODEL to these problems has been investigated in another iCASP project that investigated the impact of land use management on flooding in the Upper Calder valley.  

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Figure showing the study location of the project – the River Hipper and Upper Rother catchments.  

This project is a follow on project to the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams iCASP project, which was based in the Upper Rother Catchment, and brought together open access data to map the best sites for interventions by creating hotspot (risk) and opportunity maps. In that project, interventions were chosen which would help slow the flow, decrease diffuse pollution and increase landscape connectivity. Mapping in the initial project primarily used GIS and the rainfall-runoff models SCIMAP. The full method can be downloaded here. The initial project highlighted areas of the catchment where opportunities could be placed to help reduce risk, for example, flood risk, however, the benefits were not quantified. The Environment Agency’s flood storage calculator was used to assess what sub-catchments would have the biggest impacts on downstream flood risk. Delaying flood peaks in the Upper Rother and the River Hipper, were shown to have a 10% and 8% reduction in flood risk respectively, significantly reducing flooding in Chesterfield. This information from the Don project highlights the main sub-catchments to focus NFM works on to have the biggest impacts on flood risk. 

We will be kicking off our new Upper Rother Catchment project in April 2021. Please let us know if you would like to be kept up to date with this project as it develops by emailing the iCASP team at  

We won an award…

Digital certificate of the Sustainability Awards 2020 outreach category awarded to iCASP
Certificate awarded to iCASP for winning the University of Leeds’ Sustainability 2020 Outreach category

At its very heart, iCASP has been designed to be about working in partnership with others across the region to generate benefits, create jobs and products, to save money and ensure that existing environmental research can be used to address the many different challenges we face.

So, we were delighted to win the University of Leeds’ Sustainability Awards 2020 Outreach category which is all about working beyond the University with a range of external organisations to achieve sustainable impacts. We are fortunate to work not only with our Springboard partners across the whole iCASP programme but with an even wider range of different organisations across our many projects as well.

While our nomination for this award focused mainly on the natural flood management work we do, it is just a small part of the wide range of activity we undertake with valued partners. You can find out more about our range of projects and which organisations and individuals are involved with them in the projects area of the website

Natural flood management measures in the landscape: a blend of research expertise and volunteering

As well as the various natural flood management (NFM) projects we have running within the iCASP programme at the moment, we also provide information and guidance to other organisations with their NFM projects.

A key aspect of this is providing advice about initial and ongoing monitoring of NFM measures. This means it’s possible to understand not only the impact the measures have had, but also to influence and inform the design, planning and installation of future measures, on the same and other sites to maximise their effectiveness. We also gather data and carry out analysis on the measuring and monitoring taking place.

Footage released in March from some sites in the Upper Calder valley showed the quantities of water that NFM measures have had to deal with over the past winter, especially when storms Ciara and Dennis arrived on our shores. The video footage below was captured by University of Leeds researchers as part of work being carried out for the National Trust who have been installing NFM measures across some of their land holdings.

Footage showing how fast water rose during Storms Ciara and Dennis (Daily Motion)

But we don’t just provide scientific advice and guidance on measuring, monitoring and installing NFM; through volunteers from the University of Leeds the measures are also being installed in different locations. One of the great things about NFM measures are that they can be installed by members of the community with appropriate guidance and management. Staff and student volunteers who live, study and work at the University of Leeds are involved with several NFM and tree planting schemes in Yorkshire.

Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the communities downstream of where the NFM measures have been installed, but the health and well-being of the volunteers as well. Over the last six months, volunteers from Australia, China, Malawi, Pakistan, Spain, UK and USA have helped build leaky dams and plant trees. The University set up the volunteering scheme to provide staff and students with an opportunity to get out and about, to meet new people and learn new skills all while doing valuable work in local communities near the university.

University of Leeds tree planting group on 12 March 2020 (volunteers were from Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Kyrgyzstan, Palestine, Philippines, UK and USA) Photo credit: Mike Leonard
University of Leeds student and staff volunteers building leaky dams in November 2019.
Photo credit: Mike Leonard

XiaoXiao Ma, a PhD student researching the poet John Clare, has volunteered on workdays organised by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to install leaky dams and plant trees. While her research would not seem the most obvious fit with building leaky dams, she was keen to get first-hand experience of working on the land and connecting with nature and her research has subsequently benefited through her growing understanding of the things John Clare was writing about. She outlines two benefits she got from being a volunteer:

Building a leaky dam
Photo credit: Xiaoxiao Ma

“When I work in the field, when I use tools such as a hammer, a rake, or a spade to interact with the land, I can feel the interconnectedness between humanity and nature. We live on the land. Our life relies on the land. We are interdependent

Being a volunteer enables me to make new friends. I met Lee Galston in my first wild work day event and since then we have been very good friends. On the day when we first me, we found we shared common interests such as literature, walking, and nature. We fit in well with each other.”

Xiaoxiao Ma, University of Leeds

Lee Galston who works in the University’s Accommodation Team has also attended volunteer training days and recalls one led by Don Vine from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as he outlined the work to be done and ensured this was done safely and effectively:

“Don was incredible at what he did, and a huge part of why I’ve enjoyed coming along to the volunteering days.  He was great at teaching us how to do the tasks on the day, but he was also generous with his vast knowledge of nature (trees and water, he told me, were his thing, he wasn’t too bothered about birds). Volunteering with him has genuinely changed the way I look at the natural world.

My favourite conversation we had with Don was actually the day Xiaoxiao and I met. She’s writing her PhD dissertation on the poet John Clare and he got really excited talking about Clare’s poetry, which is very nature centric. He told us that he and some friends would play a game of bingo based on Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar, which has a poem for each month of the year, where they’d try to take a photo of anything they saw that was mentioned in that month’s poem.”

Lee Galston, University of Leeds
Happy volunteers at the end of a productive day
Photo credit: XiaoXiao Ma

Student volunteers at University of Leeds, drawn from 18 different countries around the world, have contributed to installing natural flood management measures on several sites and tree planting projects that have been informed by researchers to ensure they are sited appropriately for the role they are to play. Some of the measures are part of high profile flood risk reduction schemes, such as the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, developed and funded in response to past flood events.

While this news article was being written, we heard the very sad news that Don Vine, who coordinated the activities of many of the volunteers on Yorkshire Wildlife Trust NFM workdays, had suddenly passed away a few weeks previously. He led volunteer workdays that the University was involved with for many years and clearly made an incredible impression on the people he worked with as became clear when I contacted volunteers and volunteer coordinators to write this news piece. The leaky dams he built with volunteers, and the trees planted to help reduce flood risk to communities across the region, remain dotted across the landscape he clearly loved and felt passionate about.

News articles about different NFM projects that iCASP and University of Leeds have contributed to:

Footage of water levels rising during storms Ciara and Dennis

Leaky dams in the Upper Aire catchment

Tree planting in Gargrave

Combining water data across Hull and East Riding

It would be hard to have missed the vast quantities of water across parts of the UK over the past few months, but when water isn’t so obvious other ways are needed to track where water is, how much there is and what it is doing.

Monitoring of water is routine and carried out by the Environment Agency, water companies and local authorities, amongst others, and covers rivers, water and groundwater levels, pumping stations, overflows, sewage treatment works and rainfall levels. Many of these monitoring and gauging stations feed their results in automatically from remote or inaccessible locations meaning many measurements can be recorded without human interaction. In many cases measurements are captured every 15 minutes and fed back to the system daily; data as far back as 10 years ago is available for some gauges and monitors. Some of the Environment Agency’s gauges have been taking measurements for almost 40 years

This vast wealth of data is held and used by different organisations and, until recently, had never been combined to create a better understanding of what is happening in a region.  Until that is, the Living with Water (LWW) Telemetry Integration project team collaborated through their partnership work to share various data sets.

Combined data from the Environment Agency, East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Yorkshire Water showing the spatial distribution of gauges and monitoring stations across the region

The LWW partnership are working together with other organisations in this Catchment Telemetry Integration project to better understand what data is being routinely captured and where, and will be using it to identify ways for its use in improved forecasting and responses. Ultimately the data will be used to influence where future monitoring might be most usefully installed to provide the most useful data.

The project team produced the first ‘combined data’ maps earlier this year which show the locations and types of all the monitoring stations across Hull and East Riding, including how long they have been operating for.

Combined data from the Environment Agency, East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Yorkshire Water showing the duration of measurements, in months, by individual monitoring stations (the larger the circle the greater the duration of measurements)

These maps are provisional results so far, but show the amount of monitoring already taking place across the region.

By sharing this data, and ultimately combining it with decision-making tools, the project team hope to develop an early warning tool that will help improve operational preparedness and improve response times at the outset of a flood risk event.

Improving SME resilience

The cost of the 2015 Boxing Days floods was £47M in Calderdale alone, and the indirect knock-on effects to the regional economy was £179M. This is just from one flood event.  In every flood event there is the immediate damage, loss and destruction which is often highly visible; the knock-on effects which are wide-reaching and significant are not always so obvious. With climate change we are likely to experience more extreme weather events that can lead to flooding, so we need to improve our resilience across society.

The Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector can be highly vulnerable to flood impacts. Because a large proportion of the private sector is made up of SMEs – about 99% of Yorkshire’s private sector is made up of SMEs – flooding can have a massive impact across the wider region reaching areas outside those that were flooded.

Our newest iCASP project seeks to address this issue through supporting the SME sector to become more resilient to the impacts of flooding so the negative impacts on the wider economy are reduced.

Currently there is a large knowledge gap about the impacts of flooding upon SME businesses; this lack of knowledge extends from the SMEs themselves, through insurers and lenders, local and sub-regional authorities to national government. The effect of this knowledge gap can mean SMEs not understanding how to protect themselves adequately, and insurers or lenders not understanding the risks and so not providing lending or insurance. At the government level this lack of knowledge can manifest as a lack of appropriate funding being included in businesses cases and missed opportunities for evidenced resource allocation and investment in preventive measures.

This project will bring together local authorities and the insurance sector to help them improve their understanding of the impacts of flooding upon SMEs, identify how they can support the sector to become better prepared for floods and help prioritise their responses if and when flooding occurs. A key aspect of the project will be a robust methodology that can be used to assess the direct and indirect costs of flooding. This will enable local authorities (LAs) to carry out future flood assessments and subsequently develop evidenced and robust business plans for funding to support better responses for any future flooding.

“The Leeds City Region Flood Review was published in 2016 and developed in partnership between West Yorkshire Combined Authority/LEP, local authorities, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency. The Review and its 19 recommendations aim to implement a more consistent and effective approach to both flood risk management and mitigation, and responding to future flood events across the City Region.  Recommendation 3 of the Review relates directly to this project as it confirms the urgent need for a robust regional formula for modelling the indirect economic impact of flooding”.

Regional Authority

The ability of lenders and insurers to accurately assess and understand the likely risks of flooding will enable them to understand the right level of risk, develop new products and properly price the current products unlocking access to them for SMEs who may currently be unable to do so. An improved understanding of the effectiveness of different protection and resilience measures could also boost an increase in lending for preventive purposes and thus better uptake of these important measures to improve resilience.

“The work package on insurance will cover an important gap as it provides valuable information to insurers/lenders and surveyors to increase our understanding of SME flood risk.  When I hold my regular meetings with insurers, they are bought into the concept of resilience, but cannot move forward meaningfully to acknowledge it without more information and evidence.  They want to understand from SMEs what is the real financial impact of a flood.  But also, what difference in financial terms has, or could, a resilient strategy make to the cost of the claim. The tool that the project will co-create to assess the effectiveness of resilience measures will be key to identifying the most beneficial strategies SMEs can take to protect themselves”.

Insurance broker specialising in flood risk

As with all iCASP projects this has been co-designed and will be carried out in close collaboration with partners and stakeholders. Co-creation ensures efforts are joined-up to support widespread uptake in the Yorkshire region, and nationally, to spread the benefits of closing this current gap in our knowledge. This exciting new project will push the limits of our understanding on the economic impacts of flooding on SMEs and the effectiveness of property flood resilience measures. And, in collaboration with the City of York Pathfinder project “Yorkshire Future Flood Resilience”, it will work to improve the uptake of Property Flood Resilience across Yorkshire and the UK.

Calderdale catchment modelling workshop

As part of the Natural Flood Management (NFM) work being undertaken on the Calderdale Flood Action Plan, which iCASP’s Calderdale NFM project is contributing to, three sub-catchments in Calderdale are being modelled to improve understanding of how the current land management impacts upon flooding.

iCASP’s Tom Willis explaining how SD-TOPMODEL is being used to map three sub-catchments in Calderdale

On 14 November, Tom Willis held a workshop to explore the modelling work he has been undertaking. Tom has been using SD-TOPMODEL which helps identify which areas of the 3 sub-catchments contribute most to flooding in the lower valley. Knowing which parts of a catchment contribute most to peak flows makes it easier to assess the impact of locating an NFM measure in one place rather than another, and allows prioritisation of those measures that will have the greatest benefits.

SD TOPMODEL output showing the baseline modelling for the Jumble Hole catchment

Having seen how the model works, workshop participants could apply their knowledge and insight of the catchment into devising different scenarios for the next on-the-ground stage of the project. They then live-tested them during the session to see their impact upon peak flood levels

The next steps in this project will be the creation of a handbook to assist landowners and managers in targeting the most appropriate NFM measures across the catchment.

Tackling flooding; whole catchment approaches

At times when we experience floods, such as those currently devastating people’s homes and businesses in parts of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, it is very common to see people attempting to distill the problem down to a single cause. In complex hydrological systems there is no sense in taking this simplistic approach; rather the whole catchment needs to be considered and we need to think about how we make entire catchments more resilient to extreme events. This is one reason for the ’i‘ in the NERC-funded Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP). We work on the understanding that what happens in one area of the catchment affects other parts of the catchment because it is a whole system.

Our work looks at how processes integrate across the entire catchment and while finding solutions to environmental problems we also seek ways to address multiple problems at once, thereby delivering value for money. It isn’t just physical elements of catchment management, there’s a human element too: we work closely with partners and stakeholders on all projects to build relationships and trust and to support organisations to work together in confidence to maximise beneficial outcomes.

Flood Forecasting, and Drought & Flood Risk Mitigation are two of our six workstreams that determine the work we fund. We draw upon the research of several universities in the region including the University of Leeds, University of Sheffield and the University of York to address problems that organisations across Yorkshire are seeking to tackle. This ranges from trying to improve the ability of local councils to respond to weather forecasts by improving the advice provided in a forecast, or implementing measures that slow the flow of water across the landscape so it takes longer to move into the rivers and doesn’t contribute to sudden peak flows.

Restoring functionality

Restoring the peatland in the upper reaches of a catchment means that rainfall there takes longer to move through and into rivers downstream. Our Peatland Restoration project has developed guidance for practitioners and managers to help their decision-making as to the best restoration techniques to return the system to its normal functionality of water storage and slowing downstream flow. An added benefit of this kind of restoration is that functioning peatland acts as a sink/store locking up carbon that might otherwise be driving climate change.

Images of Sphagnum in peatland

Natural Flood Management: modelling, mapping and monitoring

Several of our other projects are on the same theme as this: using natural processes to slow and store water moving through the landscape to avoid the mass flows and peaks that cause problems. There are many Natural Flood Management (NFM) pilot projects throughout Yorkshire funded by government. Our iCASP projects are supporting these by working with partner organisations to develop modelling, mapping and monitoring capability.

We use computer models to understand which parts of a catchment contribute greater quantities of water into a watercourse than other parts, and to understand the role that landscape features – both natural and human-made – may play in this process either slowing or storing water. Our modelling expertise is currently being used in our Calderdale NFM project to understand how three tributaries contribute to water flows further downstream.

Combining rainfall data and high resolution terrain data, combined with the knowledge gained from site visits means we can create ‘Opportunity Maps’ that allow an identification of what the current landscape management means for flood risk and what might be done in future.

Once developed, Opportunity Maps allow us to identify locations where NFM interventions such as tree planting, aerating soil, buffer strips or leaky dams may best be sited for maximum effect. In the case of our Don Catchment project, we work with the land managers to identify which interventions could be installed by volunteers, what interventions would be best and where our mapping allows us to identify the additional impacts these interventions may play. Many NFM interventions can serve multiple purposes; they may not only slow down the flow of water across the landscape, but they might also improve water quality or provide valuable habitat for wildlife, contributing to improved biodiversity and species richness in an area.

“We feel very privileged to have benefited from our involvement in iCASP, as it has given us access to expertise that has resulted in opportunity maps that are guiding our decision-making in relation to our Hidden Heritage Secret Stream (HHSS) project. These maps identify locations in the landscape where we can have the most impact, and they have also helped highlight the types and locations of NFM interventions that not only slow the flow of runoff, but also reduce diffuse pollution and increase ecological connectivity across the landscape. Our team is using the maps to identify sites for investigation on the ground, and they have been very useful when engaging with our partners and landowners.”

Ed Shaw, Director Don Catchment Rivers Trust

Monitoring the impact and effectiveness of NFM interventions is critical; both to being able to identify what impact is delivered, but also in being able to make the case for funding such measures and for their ongoing maintenance.  A key aim of another of our Natural Flood Management projects is to improve the monitoring capability of those using NFM so they are able to carry out rigorous monitoring to contribute to the evidence base for this kind of flood risk intervention.

In our Payment for Outcomes project we are working with the National Trust to build NFM measures into their payment for outcomes trial. Farmers on some of the Trust’s tenanted farms will receive payment for the environmental outcomes they achieve, and this work will eventually inform Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme and show how NFM can be integrated within this.

To maximise all the benefits of this work, we’ve developed a Natural Flood Management Community of Practice (CoP) to bring together people working on NFM to share skills, experience and best practice, build capacity and discuss challenges and opportunities.  The CoP meetings draw upon the expertise we are deploying in the NFM projects we work on and also brings together people from across the region – and increasingly from beyond it too – to understand how best to manage their areas of land in the most appropriate ways for our future climate.

Images from the Natural Flood Management Community of Practice meeting in June 2019

Improved forecasting

Slowing the flow of water through a catchment, and the measures put in place to do this are just one aspect of the measures we are working on. As demonstrated in the last week, at times rainfall is extreme and even if there are lots of interventions in place upstream, the sheer quantity of water is overwhelming, so we also work on improving flood forecasting. Our Enhanced Surface Water Flood Forecasts project worked with a range of partners to trial new forecasting software to assess whether it helped flood risk managers and emergency responders in the decision-making processes they go through in a flood event.

In response to Defra’s Surface Water Management Action Plan, the Environment Agency and Met Office are scoping a new capability for sharing with responders very short range and rapid update forecasting (“nowcasting”) for the type of rainfall that causes surface water flooding. The Enhanced Surface Water Flood Forecasts project final report, including feedback from the incident response workshop, has provided valuable information and user response insight for the discovery phase of this project and we expect that continued engagement with the iCASP team will continue to be beneficial for understanding user needs and exploring piloting opportunities.”

Graeme Boyce, Project Executive, Flood Forecasting Centre

Our Living With Water Catchment Telemetry Integration project, which the Living with Water Partnership are undertaking in Hull, will bring together remote monitoring data of water flows carried out by several organisations with decision-making software to create a tool that will help deliver operational preparedness for events such as those we have seen in the last week and identify optimal locations for future monitoring. Combining such data collected by these organisations has not been done at this scale before; this way of joint working will be extremely powerful in making higher levels of knowledge available to decision makers and first responders about actions to take and deployment of flood defences.

Building resilience

Our newest project – Bridging the knowledge gap to boost SME resilience – starting later this month will be working on ways to build the resilience of the SME sector. Here in Yorkshire, much of the private sector is made up of SMEs who can be very vulnerable to flooding and the knock–on effects to the regional economy of a flood event can be significant and far-reaching. The project will work with local authorities and the insurance sector to develop a robust methodology for assessing the direct and indirect costs of floods on the SME sector so they are able to tailor their flood assessments and responses appropriately. By providing detailed information on the effectiveness of resilience measures and risk reduction activities, flood risk can be properly priced and managed by SMEs and appropriate support can be given to SMEs to make them more resilient and able to reduce their risks. Local Authorities will be better able to carry out future flood assessments, lobby for additional funds to better prepare for future flooding and, in the event of a flood, prioritise their response in a consistent and timely manner.

iCASP is also working with City of York Council on the Yorkshire Future Flood Resilience Pathfinder project to understand the current level of Property Flood Resilience (PFR) measures in place across Yorkshire, and what can be improved.

This just a snapshot of some of the work we are undertaking to produce solutions to water challenges across Yorkshire, the UK and globally. Our work extends right across catchments, from high and remote peatlands where some of the water that floods peoples’ homes begins its journey, to the streets where we live and the monitoring and forecasting that takes place to try to improve the way we respond, the advice given and the deployment of measures to reduce flood risk.

“Over time, we are increasing the number and diversifying the types of flood management techniques that will reduce peak flows downstream providing new tools to support farmers, villages, towns and cities susceptible to floods.”

Joe Holden, Director, iCASP

The environment is a complex system and we need to work at many different levels to tackle integrated problems. With climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, it is clear that we need to continue to invest in ways to address resilience and to use a wide range of solutions across the landscape to tackle flooding, rather than think about each component of the system in isolation.

Sphagnum is a key ingredient of natural flood management

In 2008 Joe Holden and colleagues published research that showed how water running over Sphagnum on blanket peatlands moved much more slowly (often ten times slower) than water running through sedges or bare peat. This spawned a new body of research which has shown how revegetation of peat, particularly if it is possible to get a dense Sphagnum cover, can slow the flow of water during storm events to reduce the flood peak downstream. The research indicates priority areas in the landscape for dense surface revegetation that will generally maximise flood benefits. Given that research has also recently shown sediment release from bare peat strongly influences peatland stream ecosystems this gives added impetus to revegetating peatlands and enhancing Sphagnum cover to achieve maximum downstream benefits for river habitats and flood risk.

Unlike most soil types where movement of water through the soil attenuates the rate of water loss into rivers, research has shown that water movement in blanket peatlands tends to be dominated by flow very close to the surface or at the surface1. This means large volumes of water move over short periods of time, associated with rainfall or snowmelt, producing very high flow peaks in blanket peatland rivers compared to the flows that occur during dry weather2, 3. The condition of the peatland surface may therefore be crucial in determining the downstream flood peak during storms.

Over a decade ago research was published that showed how water running over Sphagnum on blanket peatlands moved much more slowly than water running through sedges or bare peat4. This spawned a new body of research which tried to establish whether such effects made any difference to riverflow. This work, which included both empirical field demonstrations5, 6 and modelling experiments7-9, has now shown that revegetation of peat, particularly if a dense Sphagnum cover can be achieved, can slow the flow of water during storm events reducing the flood peak downstream. These effects hold (and can be proportionally greater) even for the very largest storm events10. The research indicates priority areas for the densest revegetation in the landscape to maximise flood benefits. These areas include strips of peatland several metres wide that run either side of streams, ditches and other watercourses, and areas of peatland covering other gently sloping parts of the catchment.

Research has also recently shown that sediment release from bare peat strongly influences peatland stream ecosystems11, 12 affecting both their biodiversity and functioning. This shows that we need to do all we can to disconnect sediment sources from the peatland streams. The most effective way to do so is to support revegetation of peatlands, especially near any watercourses. Thus, targeted restoration work that aims to achieve an end-point with a dense Sphagnum understorey will deliver maximum downstream benefits for river habitats and flood risk, while simultaneously adding resilience to the peatland ecosystems in the face of climate change, drought and wildfire.

This article by Prof. Joe Holden was originally published in the IUCN Peatland Programme newsletter July 2019


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2.         Acreman, M. & Holden, J. How wetlands affect floods. Wetlands 33, 773-786, doi: 10.1007/s13157-013-0473-2 (2013).

3.         Price, J. S. Blanket Bog in Newfoundland 2. Hydrological Processes. Journal of Hydrology 135, 103-119 (1992).

4.         Holden, J. et al. Factors affecting overland flow velocity in peatlands. Water Resources Research 44, W06415, doi: 10.1029/2007WR006052 (2008).

5.         Grayson, R., Holden, J. & Rose, R. Long-term change in storm hydrographs in response to peatland vegetation change. Journal of Hydrology 389, 336-343 (2010).

6.         Shuttleworth, E. L. et al. Restoration of blanket peat moorland delays stormflow from hillslopes and reduces peak discharge. Journal of Hydrology X 2, 100006 (2019).

7.         Gao, J., Holden, J. & Kirkby, M. J. A distributed TOPMODEL for modelling impacts of land-cover change on river flow in upland peatland catchments. Hydrological Processes 29, 2867-2879, doi: 10.1002/hyp.10408 (2015).

8.         Gao, J., Holden, J. & Kirkby, M. J. The impact of land-cover change on flood peaks in peatland basins. Water Resources Research 52, 3477-3492 (2016).

9.         Lane, S. N. & Milledge, D. G. Impacts of upland open drains upon runoff generation: a numerical assessment of catchment-scale impacts. Hydrological Processes 27, 1701-1726 (2012).

10.       Gao, J., Kirkby, M. & Holden, J. The effect of interactions between rainfall patterns and land-cover change on flood peaks in upland peatlands. Journal of Hydrology 567, 549-559 (2018).

11.       Aspray, K. L., Holden, J., Ledger, M. E., Mainstone, C. & Brown, L. E. Organic sediment pulses impact rivers across multiple levels of ecological organisation. Ecohydrology doi: 10.1002/eco.1855 (2017).

12.       Brown, L. E. et al. Sediment deposits from eroding peatlands alter headwater river invertebrate biodiversity. Global Change Biology 25, 602-619 (2019).