Flooding can have a devastating effect on communities and individual lives, destroying property and damaging land and infrastructure. In England alone five million properties – one in six – are at risk. But with the help of Middlesex University's Flood Hazard Research Centre, the world is more prepared and protected.
With more than 40 years of accrued research knowledge and data the centre, headed by Sue Tapsell, has helped inform decision making on schemes that have saved the UK more than £3 billion in flood damages and protected hundreds of thousands of people. With an office in Dakar, Bangladesh, the centre also does vital work on flood plan management in relation to climate change and coastal erosion. It's work that is widely recognized as significant. The centre has won a Queen's Anniversary Prize and former founding director, Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, was awarded an OBE for services to flood risk management in 2006 as well as receiving the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society in 2011.
Government departments, (including the Environment Agency and Defra), local governments and other agencies both at home and abroad rely on practical guidelines, which result from research conducted by the centre. The latest edition of Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management: A Manual for Economic Appraisal, known as 'The Multi-Coloured Manual', was published in October 2013 alongside a brand new suite of internet tools allowing paying license holders to access the manual and economic appraisal data online. It's a clear sign that research generated at the centre is finding a use in environmental risk management practice.
"Countries and governments wanting to build a flood alleviation scheme to protect communities use our cost benefit analysis tools,manuals and data," says Tapsell. "Over the last 40 years we have made a considerable impact and vital decisions are made using our data and methodologies. As a result, investments have been made to protect hundreds of thousands of people and properties."
The centre is also developing innovative ways for research to benefit communities. For example, the European Commission-funded project, WeSenseIt, is aiming to use social media and local data uploaded by 'citizen observers' from mobile phones alongside information gathered from innovative low cost physical sensor systems. "We will use 'social sensors', a network of volunteers in the local community who will observe environmental changes and upload them to a portal that will supplement the data professionals use," explains Tapsell.
Working with colleagues from Sheffield University and partners in other EU countries, the project will also monitor social media in the event of flooding to see how people communicate and what behavioural changes they might make. "People want to know locally if and when they need to move possessions or even evacuate their homes or businesses," explains Tapsell. "We hope that with our projects, people can make their decisions more accurately."
Middlesex University is also embarking on the equally innovative an EU-funded STAR-FLOOD project (STrengthening And Rede-signing European FLOOD risk practices: Towards appropriate and resilient flood risk governance arrangements) researching governance arrangements for flood risk management.
Tapsell says: "We will be looking at who has the power to make decisions about flood risk management, who is responsible for it and how they do it. We will look at in-depth case studies and, on the basis of what we find, we will come up with guidance on good practice for flood risk management in varying national and local contexts across Europe."