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News & opinion

30 APR 2018

Deep water horizon

Flooding is becoming more frequent and less predictable. How can we adapt to this ‘new normal’?

Jim Nadeau is going back to school – again. He is already a realtor, land surveyor, certified floodplain manager and surveyor, and associate in the US’ National Flood Insurance Program. This time, he has enrolled in a master’s degree in a rather different field: how adults learn. “Getting people to understand flood risk means changing their perceptions and logic,” he explains. “I’m intrigued by why people make choices that are not in their best interest.” 

As owner of Nadeau Land Surveys in the US state of Maine, he advises property owners on their flood risk, and provides the elevation certificates needed to challenge a requirement for mandatory insurance. It is a significant cost for buildings in the flood zone, which clients are keen to avoid. What mystifies Nadeau is why they would leave themselves exposed to the much greater cost of being flooded. “Nature doesn’t care where the line on the map is: around a quarter of all flooding happens outside high-risk flood zones. But people don’t want to hear it. If they get put in the flood zone, they often believe the maps are wrong, and if they’re outside it, they think they’re not going to get flooded.” 

Nadeau’s experience is likely to become familiar to surveyors across the profession. Assessing and managing flood risk will be a moving target throughout the 21st century and beyond, as climate change causes sea levels to rise and rainfall to become more intense. Surveyors play a vital role in advising clients of their exposure and how they can reduce it, as well as overseeing disaster recovery. As professionals in the built environment and land, more broadly speaking, they are ideally placed to translate complex data into insightful information, and are arguably failing in their duty to clients if they do not – no matter how unwelcome the message may be. 

In 1950, a third of the global population (746 million people) lived in cities; it is now more than half (3.9 billion). Much of the urban sprawl is coastal or on floodplains.

The EU’s Global Flood Observatory has found that flooding affects half a billion people each year, and this could quadruple by 2050. Reinsurance broker Aon Benfield has calculated flooding was responsible for $27bn of global economic losses in 2015, often in areas that never used to flood; the annual average loss over the last decade was $48bn. Munich Re’s NatCatSERVICE shows a steady increase in global hydrological events. 

Climate change is only half the story. Flooding becomes more problematic as the number of urban dwellers increases. In 1950, a third of the global population (746 million people) lived in cities; it is now more than half (3.9 billion). Much of the urban sprawl is coastal or on floodplains. By 2070, Kolkata and Mumbai would be the two cities with the most at-risk populations, while Miami, Guangzhou, New York and Kolkata would have the most to lose in terms of assets.  

But that does not mean we cannot do anything about it, says Jessica Lamond, associate professor in flood-risk management at the University of the West of England. “Part of the cause is man made, and part of the solution is in our hands – we should be planning for it. This is where surveyors and other built environment professionals can play a huge role.” Munich Re’s data backs this up: actual losses from flooding events have only risen by a small amount. The bulk of losses since 1980 were due to flood events in China in the 1990s, it says, adding that one reason why such losses have not reoccurred is that China invested heavily in improving protection measures immediately after the floods. 

Not that it is simply a case of keeping the water out. One of the most difficult lessons for the public to digest is that we must learn to live with it. Urbanisation has changed the nature of flooding – built-up areas are less permeable and more prone to flash floods, which are far more difficult to predict. Over the past decade, policy has shifted from building more robust defences, to making space for water. It also means accepting that buildings will flood, and making them more resilient. And although Lamond says there is recognition of this among professionals, “there is not within the communities that are actually being flooded”. 

Schemes that provide insurance at artificially low rates – such as Flood Re in the UK – have an unfortunate side effect, says Lamond: “There is no incentive to spend money sorting this out for yourself.” Flood Re will expire after 25 years, the idea being that, by then, people would have adapted their properties. She thinks this is unlikely unless insurers insist on more resilient reinstatement after a claim. “It will be quite difficult to tell people ‘You must do this’. But the alternative might be that they are not eligible for insurance once the pool expires.”

There is already plenty of information for surveyors advising homeowners about flood risk, but less for commercial property – where the availability of insurance will have profound ramifications for valuations. Lamond is leading an RICS-funded research project on the role and capacity of the profession in the UK, Germany, China, the US and Australia. It is too early to draw conclusions, but Burrell Montz, a professor at East Carolina University in the US who interviewed surveyors for the project, stresses the need for closer interaction between banks, insurers and surveyors: “They’re all involved but they don’t necessarily talk to each other. It’s a rare surveyor who understands the insurance process, for instance.”

There is also a huge difference between small and large businesses, in both exposure and awareness. “Small businesses have much more invested,” says Montz. “All their assets are in one place and many rent their property, rather than own it.” The US Federal Emergency Management Agency says that 40% of small businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and another 25% fail within a year of reopening. 

This has been the impetus for companies in Sheffield in northern England to use £19.4m raised from local business rates to pay for flood defences. Following severe flooding in 2007, premiums soared and it is hoped the defences will return them to a sustainable level. It was the idea of Philip Wilbourn FRICS, a flood-risk expert whose own practice was flooded at a cost of £85,000. “I was angry. I had a metre of water in my office, but we were not in a flood plain or warning area, according to the Environment Agency. No money had been spent on that catchment area to defend it or survey it, nothing at all.”

This is the danger of spending formulas based on the value of assets to be protected. Wilbourn is referring to the amount of money channelled into the south-east of the UK, where the most valuable assets are, but it is a message that can be applied globally – the poorer the community, the less able it will be to recover. Without appropriate funds for defences or mitigation measures, Wilbourn warns of the emergence of “flood ghettos”. “It’s not just the immediate flood area, it affects the surrounding areas, and the wider community drifts down the economic scale. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of less investment and fewer opportunities.” 

Wilbourn says the surveying profession is “well-placed” to contribute to protecting communities. But it has a lot to learn. He has recently been wading through the flood-risk assessments for an investment property, which weigh in at 260 pages. “It’s a highly complex field, so the role of the chartered surveyor is to bridge the worlds of environmental science and property. We can’t continue to brush flood issues under the carpet, because they will come back and affect indemnity premiums.” 

It is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. “The thing is, not many surveyors will do [flood-risk assessments] unless requested by the client,” says Wendy Lathrop, owner of Pennsylvania-based Cadastral Consulting and a provider of floodplain management training to other surveyors. But she has noticed a difference in the classroom, and thinks the message is getting through: “This is a great field for us. Surveyors are the ones on the ground, and we have the ability to recognise conditions that would make a project more or less flood-prone. More people are involved in saying ‘What if?’ and asking insightful questions. That, to me, is a good sign.”