Managing flood risk is about more than building defences. Traditional defences such as embankments, walls and barriers will continue to have their place, but in the face of climate change and the need for sustainable approaches, the role of floodplains has to be revisited. In an ideal world, floodplains would be left to play their natural role and accommodate floodwater. In an increasingly crowded world, that option no longer exists in many river valleys. Pressures for development have lead to occupation of areas at risk from flooding. The inevitable result is that those at risk demand defences for protection. All too often, this is accompanied by the belief that the protection is absolute, with the consequence that people are unprepared for the flood that exceeds the design standard of the defence.

Hard engineering it is often not sustainable in the longer term. Climate change is testing the conventional techniques of flood management: building walls, embankments, gates and barriers. It is no longer sufficient to build flood defences higher and assume they will never fail. This practice is also expensive and has a major impact on the landscape, wildlife and people’s enjoyment of river spaces.

Flood risk management must address this residual risk, public awareness of risk and the need for different approaches. This, in turn, means that we need to find new ways of managing floodplains and gaining public acceptance of these changes and the inherent flood risk. As a society, we need to learn to live with flood risk. This is the premise behind the FloodScape project.

Recognising the demand for innovative and inclusive approaches to managing flood waters has drawn together four countries spanning North West Europe in the FloodScape project. Through the project, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have shared experiences and best practice across national boundaries. The initiative is assisted by almost € 4.4million of EU grant-aid under the Interreg IIIB NWE programme. This has levered a total of € 8.8million to fund the four-year project, which currently includes seven pilot schemes.

Water does not respect political boundaries and a key lesson from FloodScape is that we have much to learn from each other’s experiences. Each partner is pursuing a flood action plan and jointly they aim to reduce the costs and risks of innovation. All face similar challenges. The Netherlands, for example, has now adopted a policy of seeking storage within the catchment rather than raising river dykes. Each country is learning to “join-up” their approaches to flood management and land use, nature management and ecology. The Dutch Rivers Region Further Development (NURG) Programme promotes co-operation between three Dutch Ministries (Transport, Public Works and Water Management; Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries; and Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment) and the provinces, to support national policy for the ‘Green Environment’.

In England and Wales too we are moving towards a policy that encourages “Making space for water”. FloodScape is exploring how we can translate this policy into new, sustainable landscapes that combine water with nature conservation, agriculture and recreation. Three of the FloodScape pilots are located in diverse sites along the river Thames in South East England. The project is looking at Ham Lands, the area around the historic Ham House in South West London. In this area of high landscape and amenity value which used to function as tidal flood meadow, FloodScape has developed a community based plan to restore and enhance the historic character and function of grazed wet meadows and landscape for amenity, recreation and wildlife, as well as delivering flood management benefits.

In the Thames Gateway, which is earmarked for massive economic regeneration and improvement, FloodScape is working with planners, developers and architects to masterplan developments with climate change and flood management in mind. We hope that the results of our work will contribute to best practice in urban development in growth areas.

And in the Inner Thames and North Kent Marshes the scheme has been exploring the possibility of re-introducing some form of tidal flooding into areas, to reduce the impact of uncontrolled and damaging flooding. We have worked with local communities and organisations with an interest in the area to see if it is possible to balance the need to manage flood risk differently in an uncertain future with other requirements, such as landscapes that work for people and wildlife.

These sites provide the physical background for John Goto’s Floodscapes. The collaboration came about through a personal contact between the FloodScape project manager and the artist. It was clear that, although a central aspect of FloodScape is to stimulate and involve communities in deciding how we manage flood risk in the future, we were using predominately verbal, rational mechanisms to engage them. It struck me that the visual arts could provide a complementary perspective, another mechanism to encourage participation. To help people consider how we use the resources we have and plan for the future when those resources are considerably less assured.

The narrative within Floodscapes powerfully highlights the themes we’ve been exploring in the project: man’s fragile relationship with his environment, of course, the challenges posed by climate change and uncertainty about the future. But, I think it brings into sharp perspective that we have clear choices about how we relate to our environment. We can adapt our behaviours to provide a future that is less hazardous and less full of uncertainty. It just requires imagination on our part.

FloodScape is playing its part in reminding people that as well as the efforts of organisations and institutions in managing flood risk, as individuals we all have to take responsibility to ensure we are prepared for future events.

Egon Walesch
May 2006

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< Floodscape interview with John Goto

FloodScape is a four-year project seeking to develop innovative solutions to Flood Risk Management (FRM). It is part-funded by the EU Interreg IIIB North West Europe programme. It is demonstrating, through seven pilot actions, that flood risk management can accommodate present and future requirements relating to spatial planning, public acceptance and conservation of the natural environment. The FloodScape project partners are:
Environment Agency (UK)
Government Service for Land and Water Management (DLG Netherlands)
Ministry of the Flemish Community, Waterways and Marine Affairs Administration (Belgium)
Hessen Ministry of Environment, Agriculture and Forest (Germany)
Federation for the Waste Water System and Flood Defence Baunatal-Schauenburg (Germany)
The Environment Agency is the lead partner.
The project ran from January 2002 to
December 2006.
For further information see

Floodscapes is a collaborative project between John Goto,
the Environment Agency’s FloodScape Project
and the University of Derby.

The artist would like to thank Egon Walesch, FloodScape Project Manager; Peter Borrows, Oliver Grant and Ashley Doherty at Floodscape; Professor David Manley, Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Technology at the University of Derby; Michael Rowe and Netty Rawlings at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley; Andrea Hadley-Johnson at Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, Oxford; and the actors in this series - Alex and Morgan Williams, Jamie and Alex Coleman, and finally Zoey and Jade Goto.

All works 112 cm x 74.5 cm, pigment prints on cotton paper, 2005-6