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Will London really be underwater by 2050?

By lunchtime on 12 July this year, flash floods had caused eight underground lines to be suspended and many stations forced to close.

In the aftermath of flooded basements and shop floors, Londoners quickly took to social media to share shocking images of water gushing down tube steps, sentimental contents ruined, and cars determinedly ploughing through sodden high streets as they battle against water levels that licked the tops of their tyres. 

Five days later it happened again. In under two hours over 70cm of rain had hit the streets of London. Once more, homes, restaurants, shops and stations were flooded.

Then once more, on 25 July, the capital felt the effects of another sudden, violent downpour. 

Following this flood, as well as the now usual flurry of tube stations quickly shutting gates to passengers, two London hospitals had to close too, with patients forced to evacuate their beds and the building due to power outages. 

The Met Office also issued its first extreme heat warning in July as temperatures soared to 32⁰C in large parts of England and Wales.

As homeowners and businesses struggled to deal with the devastation caused yet again, the events were a stark reminder of projections from the non-profit news organisation Climate Central that parts of London were at risk of being underwater by 2050. Just 29 years away.

But how realistic is this claim? 

According to Climate Central’s interactive coastal risk screening tool, it’s predicted that many areas of London, including Merton, Kensington and Chelsea, will be seriously affected by flooding. 

‘The sea level rise and coastal flood risks illustrated in our maps are based on current peer-reviewed research, including the latest IPCC projections published earlier this year, and the most accurate global coastal elevation dataset available,’ explains Peter Girard from the organisation. ‘Our tools visualise the best available science on the risks posed by rising seas and identify at-risk areas. 

‘Assessing those more precisely with available technology, governments can plan responses that minimise the danger and disruption caused by increasing coastal floods.’

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Meanwhile, A study carried out by the mayor of London and Bloomberg, has also predicted that six boroughs, including Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham and Tower Hamlets, are at ‘high risk’ from the climate impacts of flooding and high temperatures. 

With public transport already being affected, data from the Environment Agency predicts that 10 per cent of main roads and over a fifth of railways across the UK are at high risk of flooding if water levels continue to rise.  

Further data shows that the Thames rose by 15 centimetres between 1911 and 2008 and that this rise is accelerating. With this growth in mind, almost half of all hospitals and 20 per cent of schools across London could potentially be at risk, too. 

So what does this spell for communities in key areas, or for London’s historical buildings – and their residents – such as Buckingham Palace and The Houses of Parliament? How will the city survive? And is there some secret relocation plan in place that we don’t know about? 

In short, are all Londoners doomed to drown or is something actually being done to tackle it? 

According to Sarah Smith, the Environment Agency’s Flood Risk Manager for London, the answer is quite clear: no, we’re definitely not doomed – and yes, something is being done about it. 

However, before you take a huge sigh of relief, it certainly doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax. 

As we saw this summer, flash floods are on the increase due to climate change, which means homeowners still need to be proactive in protecting their houses. For those who live directly on the river, there is also still an element of risk – not from flooding, but from the potential impact of defences have to be built up or back as part of plans to protect London from watery disaster.

A simulation of how the Tower of London could be affected by sea levels rising as a result of a 3°C increase in global temperatures (Climate Central)

Clearing up the mixed messages surrounding claims that ‘London will be underwater by 2050’, Sarah tells Metro.co.uk: ‘The Climate Central predictions are really helpful to prompt a discussion around potential impact of sea level rise and the need to adapt to climate change.

‘But what they don’t take into account is the network of tidal flood defences that we have in London, that provide a very high standard of protection to London and the Thames Estuary.’

Peter Girard adds that plans that may have been put in place by the government to tackle flooding, suggests they have taken Climate Central’s ongoing research seriously. 

‘As seas continue to rise, increasing the risks of coastal floods, governments will face bigger challenges to protect coastal communities,’ he explains. ‘But defences like those that help to manage coastal flood risks in London serve as examples of how governments can respond to protect people, property, and economic centres in low-lying areas.

‘By using tools like Climate Central’s to identify at-risk areas and assessing those risks more precisely with available technology, governments can plan responses that minimise the danger and disruption caused by increasing coastal floods.’

WHY IS LONDON AT RISK OF FLOODING?

There are two key factors to consider – rising sea levels and surface water flooding, both casualties of global warming. 

In August, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that in all predicted scenarios, the average global temperature was likely to exceed 1.5⁰C. 

A warming of the ocean and increased melting of land-based ice, such as glaciers and ice sheets, is behind rising sea levels, which then have a knock on effect on our rivers, such as the Thames which runs through the capital. 

The London boroughs at high risk of flooding include Hackney, Camden, Islington, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Hammersmith & Fulham etc. (Credits: gisportal.london.gov.uk)

Meanwhile, a warmer atmosphere is also creating more moisture, resulting in flash floods – which are measured as 30mm of rain per hour – and seen as a surface water issue, which means a lack of adequate drainage is causing rain to collect rather than filter away. 

Until we begin to reduce the climate temperature, quick and sudden floods will only become more intense. In fact, according to the Climate Resilience Programme, research has suggested that these types of rainfall will increase five fold by the 2080s if climate change continues in the way it has. 

‘We will see increased risk of high intensity rainfall as the climate changes,’ admits Sarah. ‘So we are likely to see increased surface water flooding, and that doesn’t mean the whole of London, it could be very small pockets. That’s why adaptation and limiting the temperature rise – so it stays below 1.5⁰C – is really going to be key.’

Additionally, the way London is built – and still being built upon – is also an issue. 

‘The density of buildings is the first of the problems,’ explains Julia Starzyk, founder construction consultancy, Star Projects . ’If you think about buildings as rectangles on the map, these areas do not allow water to soak into the ground freely. We have roads, pavements, patios and other structures only adding to this effect.’

Problem number two, she adds, is the fact that we are building in general and increasing the amount of waste water – but not really developing the drainage system to take this into account.

‘I think that given the age of London’s drainage is reaching 200 years soon it’s probably the time to look into upgrading the infrastructure as much as possible taking into consideration new requirements,’ she says. 

With strict planning rules, many homeowners are now often building down if they want to extend as they are prohibited from going up. ‘That doesn’t help either,’ adds Julia. ‘We are blocking paths for water to reach the drain runs, and limiting the ground space where water can stay.’

LONDON’S FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE

The Thames Barrier is London’s main line of defence (Picture: Environment Agency)

It was a horrific incident in the 1950s that made London look into flood prevention and eventually create The Thames Barrier – a retractable flood barrier made up of 10 steel gates which spans 520 metres across the River Thames. ‘It was built in response to floods in 1953, that swept down the east coast of the country and killed over 300 people,’ explains Sarah. 

When it was first constructed in the 1980s the expectation was that it would be used once or twice per year, building up to 30 times per year by 2030, due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. However, in 2013/14 it needed to close 41 times.

And although it was originally envisaged to last until 2030, Sarah says, ‘we’ve invested heavily in the Thames Barrier to ensure it can continue to provide high protection to London until at least 2070 based on current climate projections.’ 

The Environment Agency are already planning for the future of the flood defences through the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan.  

The Plan contains protection strategies against flooding for the next 15 years and beyond until the end of the 21st century, through ‘working with partners to continue to protect the 1.4 million people and £321 billion worth of property at risk of flooding in the capital’. 

‘It’s a very long term plan that looks out beyond the end of the century,’ explains Sarah. ‘We are already embarking upon the earliest phase. So that we can adapt to a range of different climate futures, we review all the evidence on a number of social, environmental and economic indicators, including the latest sea level rise predictions, every 10 years to ensure that we are able to respond in a timely way should those predictions change. ‘

The plan also sets out approaches to managing flood risk are appropriate along the estuary based upon future flood levels. 

This includes a system of defences constructed such as Thames Barrier, other smaller barriers, 330 kilometres of flood walls and embankments, pumping stations and flood gates.  

In some locations this will mean raising or moving back existing riverside defences, according to Sarah – something that could impact those with riverside properties.

‘There will be some cases where defences will need to be raised by half a metre initially or there are other opportunities to push defences back and reshape the Riverside’, she admits. 

‘We need to work with communities, existing properties, businesses and infrastructures and local authorites to get the best fit.’

The Environmental Agency is also bound by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to develop a National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) Strategy for England to mitigate and tackle flood risk. 

This includes expanded flood warnings by 2022 to all at-risk properties across England, with 62,000 more families to be added to the service, as well as more collaborative partnerships with national road, rail and utilities providers to ensure their investments are flood resilient and benefit the public.



‘Our London home flooded in July – we’ve been told we can’t move back until March’

In July, as floods devastated London, one of the houses hit was Jody Thompson’s one-bed garden flat in Kilburn.

‘Sewage was coming up through our bath and our toilet – surface water and sewage was coming in through the front door and the backdoor, too,’ remembers the journalist and consultant. ‘Thankfully, my partner was in the flat when it happened and he was able to rescue our two cats, otherwise they’d have drowned.

‘Everything the water touched had to be ripped out, it wasn’t just a case of sanitising it. 

‘Builders have had to hack away at the walls and take up all of our floors – there’s nothing left in our flat, not even the kitchen sink.’

Jody and her partner David have been told they won’t be able to return to the flat until March at the earliest (Picture: Supplied)

Despite the devastation, Jody, 50, has admitted that she was ‘one of the lucky ones’ as most of the cost of the damage has been covered by buildings insurance, and her personal contents insurance.

Despite this, Jody claims that the builders employed by the loss adjusters are now saying they are ‘too busy with other flood damaged properties in London to do anything but the basics of restoring the structure.’

‘We’ve got to now find new contractors to put in a new kitchen and bathroom, but the insurance will still be paying for a like-for-like restoration in our flat,’ she says.

‘It’s not the cost – it just means we’ve got to find contractors at short notice and it’s going to potentially delay the flat being rebuilt and us going back home,’

Now, Jody and her partner, David Snow, are living in temporary accommodation in Brent while her flat of 21 years is being restored and repaired. They have been told that they won’t be able to return to the flat until March, at the earliest.

Since the floods, Jody admits she has ‘toyed with the idea’ of moving out of London (Picture: Supplied)

‘It’s not just us – I don’t know of anybody that has managed to get back into their home or flat,’ she says.

‘My next door neighbour has been in a Travelodge since July as he was renting – some people I’m speaking to have kids and are in a one bedroom place.

‘We’re still fighting for answers from Thames Water as we believe that the sewage system wasn’t efficient enough or it failed.

‘The flood water stayed at the same level for an hour or so and it was still hammering it down with rain then it just totally disappeared.’

Jody is now in a WhatsApp group with ‘dozens’ of other families like hers that were affected by the flooding, and has since contacted her MP, Tulip Siddiq in a bid for answers – as well as sent official complaints letters to Thames Water, who have claimed it was a ‘one in 300 years’ event and are now conducting an independent enquiry.

‘The idea of it happening again is awful,’ says Jody (Picture: Supplied)

‘But then Walthamstow flooded two weeks later,’ says Jody. ‘It’s not the stuff like the sofas and furniture, as they can be replaced – but we feel really out of control. We’re in limbo.’

Since the floods, Jody admits she has ‘toyed with the idea’ of moving out of London.

‘The idea of it happening again is awful, as it’s the silly little things you don’t think about that you lose, like family photos that can’t be replaced,’ she says.

‘Even if no one is at fault, there’s still no money being spent on London’s Victorian sewage system- and we’ve known the climate crisis has been coming for decades, so why isn’t London equipped for it?’

LET’S TALK MONEY

The costs in protecting London are huge – and that’s not taking into account the surge in insurance payouts and policies following this summer’s flood damage to many properties.

In May 2021, the Environment Agency published its FCERM strategy in which it stated that ‘the economic losses from the winter 2019/20 flooding was estimated to be about £333 million but the economic damage avoided from the protection provided was at least 14 times greater’.

So now, more than ever, the government is investing in flood risk management. In the 2020 Budget, they committed to doubling the expenditure on flood and coastal risk management to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027.

This is to better protect the 336,000 homes and properties currently at risk of flooding now and in the future, and avoid £32 billion of wider economic damages to the nation. In addition, the government has set aside £200 million between 2021 and 2027 for a resilience programme that will support 25 local areas to take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion.

WHAT ELSE NEEDS TO BE DONE TO PROTECT OUR CITY? 

Holistic city planning is the need of the hour as experts point out that if we don’t have the right plans to manage the flooding in one part of London, other areas would still be affected.

‘What we’re experiencing goes way beyond tidal flooding. It’s more intense storms that cause coastal flooding or cause rivers to overtop their banks more regularly,’ says Lauren Sorkin, Executive Director of Resilient Cities Network, an organisation that works with almost 100 cities in 41 countries to build urban resilience. 

According to Lauren, there are three things cities should consider: One is to understand the risk, timing and potential impact using models. The second is to plan for the capacity to respond in a holistic way because flooding doesn’t stop at borough or council borders. The third is to actually invest in systems for managing the climate impacts due to sea-level rise. 

She also cites the example of New York City. Nine years ago in October, Hurricane Sandy hit the city, causing $19 billion worth of citywide damages and putting 17 per cent of the city’s land underwater. 44 people lost their lives to Sandy, so to prevent a similar scenario in the future, the city has now taken a comprehensive risk management approach to investing in flood protection.

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New York has since set up a Mayor’s office of resiliency where they’ve identified the highest risk areas and are investing in climate resilience master plans (Climate Central)

New York has since set up a Mayor’s office of resiliency where they’ve identified the highest risk areas and are investing in climate resilience master plans. Just last month, they announced $110 million to support projects to protect the seaport area in New York City’s financial district from climate change impacts. 

‘While that might not sound like a lot of money compared to $19 billion worth of damages, it goes a very long way,’ she says.

Resilient Cities Network is a city-led network of about 100 cities around the world and with chief resilience officers in each of their cities, whose job it is to comprehensively manage the resilience of their city by helping to direct investment.

These climate resilience investments can also help revitalize neighbourhoods by planning for waterfronts that are accessible and enhance public spaces while it protects the area around them.

As London’s Thames Estuary project was mostly created to deal with tidal flooding, Lauren thinks the city also needs to take into account the latest climate modelling to prepare for the enhanced climate impacts and financial repercussions. 

‘There’s room to be more comprehensive and use these projects on climate risk, resilience and flooding, as an opportunity to invest in upgrading ageing infrastructure, in particular, housing stock and to invest in vulnerable communities,’ she says.

HOW CAN WE PREPARE OURSELVES?

It’s essential that communities be aware of their flood risk but even though a lot of the information is publicly available, people don’t know where to access it. 

As the population grows, the number of properties in flood plains will almost double over the next 50 years according to the EA. Over 5.2 million homes and properties in England will be at risk from flooding and coastal erosion but only a third of people who live in these areas believe their property is at risk.

‘If you’re living in a community that’s near a body of water, it’s smart to understand your flood risk and what your community and city is going to be able to provide for you,’ says Lauren. 

Following Sandy in New York, people didn’t want to have to keep repairing their homes and reacting to floods. They wanted to prepare their homes and their neighbourhoods instead.

Resilient Cities Network advocates for cities to take a proactive approach and invest in being stronger for the long term by exchanging best practices on how to do this. 

‘There are a lot of different solutions and approaches for dealing with flood risk and sea-level rise. We’re all being affected by a changing climate. So we need to keep sharing knowledge,’ says Lauren.

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A simulation of how St Paul’s Cathedral could be affected by sea levels rising as a result of a 3°C increase in global temperatures (Climate Central)
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A simulation of how Buckingham Palace could be affected by sea levels rising as a result of a 3°C increase in global temperatures (Climate Central)

Meanwhile, in a worst case scenario, Peter Girard warns that we need to be aware of the health risks if flooding becomes a major issue.

‘Although Climate Central research hasn’t explored specific health impacts associated with coastal flooding, the potential impact on drinking water systems represents an extremely serious risk,’ he says. ‘The spread of contamination from wastewater facilities, hazardous waste sites, and fuel storage sites also represent potentially serious health impacts.’

In June, the government published guidance on flooding and coastal erosion that recommends using natural methods like planting trees and hedges to slow the flow of water through the landscape and diverting high water flows to areas to store the water.

The guidance is aimed at making communities ‘more resilient to the effects of climate change, including flooding’. 

These measures give people more time to prepare and reduce the peak water levels of rivers and streams. The government says ‘anyone can put these solutions into practice’ with the right permits depending on the location and type of solution.

Other natural methods listed include creating leaky barriers to slow water flow in streams and ditches, and restoring salt marshes, mudflats and peat bogs. These can be effective on their own or used alongside engineered solutions such as flood barriers to reduce the risk for communities that flood regularly.

Using natural flood resistance methods could also increase the variety of wildlife in rivers and streams, improve water quality by reducing soil erosion and store carbon to help reduce global warming.

However, the major problem with flood risk management in the UK is the fragmented nature of governing bodies. The responsibility is split among a number of bodies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The bright side is that people can take matters into their own hands, by contacting the natural flood management team or the Environment Agency to get support in their local areas and discuss plans for reducing their flood risk.

There’s also a long term flood risk service to help people figure out their lead authority to contact about flood risk management.

However, the Environment Agency reiterates that when it comes to the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan, ‘Relocation of homes and business is not currently one of the options being considered.’ 

So there’s no need to worry. Just yet. 



How can you help?

Active flood projects are listed on the interactive map on the JBA Trust website.

Citizens can also apply for funding to carry out flood reduction work. The government also plays people for environmental land management with the Countryside Stewardship scheme incentives.


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https://metro.co.uk/2021/12/18/will-london-really-be-underwater-by-2050-15667141/ Will London really be underwater by 2050?

Huynh Nguyen

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