Global, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

Urban flooding – a view from Scotland


Photo by Jacob Capener on Unsplash

This feature was written by Kirsty MacRae from the Scottish Flood Forum, with thanks given to Scottish Water for providing statistics and input.

“The day the Edinburgh Festival starts, summer ends and it starts to rain”

That has been a received truth for many of us growing up and living in Scotland’s capital. However, like many of our myths, it was part joke, part true with late August often bringing dreich weather just as the tourists arrived.

In recent years, the summer months in Scotland have brought a different challenge and one that looks likely to get worse as the impact of climate change become more evident. Instead of steady, slow rain, we’re seeing intense, often thundery downpours, with accompanying flash flooding, particularly in urban areas whose drainage systems were not designed for these more extreme events.

Over the last three years, we have seen a trend towards events that historically would have been considered very rare and occurring less than once every 30 years, happening in multiple locations. The local burns, taking water to rivers can’t cope – and neither can the drains and sewers – they were never designed to. This means that our streets get flooded with water that arrives very quickly and has nowhere to go as drains and watercourses back up. Houses and basements, take the water instead.

As a representative from Scottish Water notes:

“In many areas of Scotland experienced flash flooding following severe storm events over the summer months in 2019, 2020 and again in 2021. Many of the same areas, properties and businesses were impacted on numerous occasions – some residents even experiencing flooding again whilst still trying to recover from a previous incident. In the worst case, flooding has occurred again within days of an initial event. Community and political scrutiny has increased following each severe flood event, with rising frustrations and expectations on public agencies to take action to stop recurrence of flooding.”

From the front line

For those of us dealing directly with those impacted by this flooding it is heartbreaking – people who have just returned to their homes after the last rip out and rebuild necessitated by the last flood event, on the phone to us because they’ve flooded again. The frustration, upset and anger at the perceived lack of action by agencies to stop it from happening, again and again, is all too plain to hear. In tough financial times, especially for those impacted by the pandemic and who due to financial constraints, have not sufficient insurance to cover a flood claim have to find a way to restore their property and replace their possessions at their own cost – and fear it could be for nothing if flooding happens again. This takes a huge toll on mental health and emotional wellbeing.

On top of this, the intensity of the storms means we are seeing a change to where flooding is occurring. Surface water flooding (heavy rainfall straight onto our streets and pavements) can happen almost anywhere, and with our changing climate we are already hearing from people who historically were not a risk of flooding, now experiencing water entering their homes and businesses through airbricks, utilities, doors and sadly also through backing up of the sewer system and entering the home from toilets and plug holes.

In a number of cases, we received calls from folks living in basement flats. Here, in Scotland, we were fortunate this year, no one died. However, had certain people been in their homes, asleep when the flooding happened – as the weight of water broke the basement bedroom window and came rushing in – it’s unlikely they would have survived. Other parts of the world saw deaths in basements due to flooding in 2021 – we were lucky.

The problem before us

The current drainage infrastructure of our towns and cities, which includes the network of road gullies, surface water pipes, combined sewers, and fast-flowing urban watercourses and culverts, has served us well in the past, managing the ‘typical Scottish weather’. However, climate trends predict that occurrences of extreme rainfall are expected to increase, both in frequency and intensity.

These changes to our weather, combined with population growth and urban creep (paving over gardens and green spaces) will place even greater pressure on this infrastructure in the future. These very intense and short duration storm events can overwhelm the urban drainage system very quickly, leading to widespread surface water flooding that can cause disruption to communities – flooding roads and ponding in low areas of towns and cities as well as flooding into more and more homes and buildings.

What can be done now?

At the moment we are living with the reality of infrastructure built for a different climate, but there are still things we can do:

  • Continue prioritising investment to manage the risk of flooding, taking into account the increasing risks of surface water flooding.
  • Homeowners and businesses, supported and encouraged by the Scottish Flood Forum (SFF) and local authority emergency planning Officers and flood officers, can take up measures to protect properties from shallow (up to 0.6m) flooding – property level protection measures (PLP). These can be effective against surface water flooding which is, in many cases, shallow and of short duration. Funding and support to enable wider take up of these measures would be welcomed. As we look at energy efficiency retrofit programs across Scotland, it would seem a missed opportunity for adaptation measures such as PLP not to be included.
  • Properties that need to be repaired after flooding can be encouraged by their insurer, builder or surveyor to repair their property to be more resilient (easier to dry out) to any future flooding. What this looks like is different for different property constructions, but can include replacing electrics at a higher level, so they remain dry in future floods – using water-resistant flooring or plaster materials that can easily be washed and dried out. There is an increasing set of resources to help make these kinds of decisions and these need to become the norm for flood repair work.

  • Non-return valves on downstairs and basement drainage should become the norm, stopping the backup of sewers arriving in kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Increased awareness of the risks when driving through water is needed – that you may create a wave with your vehicle, causing water to flow into houses and businesses. We will all need to become more aware of the impacts of urban flooding and become considerate neighbours.
  • Planning advice on converting basements to living spaces urgently needs revising to take into account the increased risk of flooding.

What must be done long term

The complex nature of draining and flooding responsibilities in Scotland and the changing climate – which the current drainage infrastructure was never designed for – means we have a difficult journey ahead, which will need different organisations, funding areas and policy areas to work together across some very ‘wicked’ problems.

This has been recognised in the Scottish Government ‘Water Resilient Places Policy Framework’, where there is a need for cross-sector effort to create low-carbon, water resilient places where the impact of surface water flooding is minimised.  To address this, three challenges have been set out:

  1. Facing up to the climate emergency – both mitigation and adaptation;
  2. Delivering great blue-green places to live (at all scales) that are adaptable to future conditions;
  3. Tackling surface water flooding.

If Scotland is to respond effectively to these global challenges and ultimately support people and businesses, transformational change at scale is needed to manage the water environment and create water resilient places. It is recognised that the activities of all parties – public, private, third sector, landowners, developers, communities and individuals – can all have the potential to be part of the transformational change needed.

And a long-term planning approach is needed to develop and deliver clear action to reduce the risk and impact of surface water flooding, build community resilience and adapt our towns & cities to the impacts of climate change. The focus should not only be on the traditional view of ‘drainage’ being one agency or department’s role.  Everyone has the opportunity to do something that can positively or negatively impact flooding – every change to the surface is an opportunity to manage surface water differently and make a positive contribution to becoming water resilient places

Adapting our urban areas to this challenge, while supporting those who are impacted now is the challenge before us.

For more information on things to do to prepare for flooding, see our website


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