You don’t have to thumb through a newspaper, or watch the TV news, for long to come across stories about our changing climate and the devastating impact it is having.
The monsoon rains that cut a swathe across parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh last month, were described by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) as one of the worst regional humanitarian crises in years.
More than 1,200 people were killed by the devastating floods and tens of thousands were left homeless, with initial estimates suggesting that as many as 16 million people have been affected.
In Mumbai, India’s burgeoning financial capital, the city ground to a halt as trains and flights were cancelled. Schools were forced to close and closed and a hospital flooded, forcing staff to evacuate the paediatric ward, with reports of roads waist-deep with water.
Meanwhile in the US, Hurricane Harvey brought destruction to Texas, with at least 47 deaths and more than 43,000 people forced from their homes.
It’s against this turbulent climatic backdrop that Leeds is hosting the three-day International Conference on Flood Management, which gets under way today.
The major conference, held every three years, is a major coup for Leeds and brings together many of the world’s leading flood management experts, scientists and government officials.
Professor Joseph Holden is Director of the research centre water@leeds, which is organising the conference, and says experts are from as far afield as China and the United States.
“It’s exciting that it’s here in Leeds because it allows us to tap into this international expertise and then use it to the best effect in Yorkshire,” he says.
Delegates will be discussing everything from innovative flood management techniques and the importance of urban design, to the ongoing impact of climate change and how best to tackle it.
Prof Holden, based at the University of Leeds, says the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Flood management as we’ve seen recently is absolutely vital, it’s a matter of life and death. “Climate change will potentially make things worse but there are still things we can do on the ground to reduce loss of life and reduce the financial cost of flooding.
“We might not necessarily stop all these massive floods from happening, but we can do a lot to stop the smaller floods from happening.”
He says local flood strategies have an important role to play. “People need to understand when there are warnings what they mean and what they need to do.”
Yorkshire is no stranger to flooding. Hebden Bridge was flooded twice in a matter of weeks during the torrential summer downpours of 2012, while the Boxing Day floods of two years ago brought parts of West and North Yorkshire to a standstill with many homes and businesses, not to mention large chunks of the transport network, submerged.
Prof Holden believes lessons are being learned in how we tackle such extreme weather events. “It’s interesting that in our region the Leeds flood alleviation scheme, as well as those in Sheffield and York and smaller ones in Hebden Bridge, which are coming on stream in the next few years are now looking further up the catchment area.
“They’re not just putting in bigger and better flood defences around towns and cities, they’re all looking at what they can do to the landscape upstream to slow the flow and catch water so that when the peaks go through our towns and cities they’re much smaller.”
Prof Holden says Leeds and the rest of Yorkshire is well aware of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. “We saw from the Boxing Day floods of 2015 the size of the threat we’re facing. The damage to businesses and homes was there for everyone to see.”
Nevertheless, he says that closer partnerships between the relevant bodies such as Yorkshire Water, Natural England and even the Met Office can help combat future floods.
“When we look at the science of all this there are things we can do. We can slow the movement of water across the landscape and we can, even when there’s an awful lot of rain.
“Yes, more money is needed, but the point of the work we are doing and of hosting this conference is so how we can use the investment to best effect, so that every penny we spend really has the maximum effect.
“We can ensure we’re more resilient, that there isn’t loss of life and we don’t have huge economic losses, and with some of the flood events we can stop them from happening at all if we manage our landscape better.”