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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Systems thinking needed for sustainable solutions to flooding

By Ian Raper, on 27 January 2014

The Somerset levels are experiencing the worst flooding that residents can remember, and this event is gathering a lot of press coverage.

Clearly we are dealing with a ‘water system’ here with the input of the prolonged and heavy rainfall, the elements of the fields, drainage system and rivers and the outcome of the water level. It is good to see that the news coverage recognises that there is no simple solution to this and have elicited views from a range of stakeholders.

This has highlighted that calling for the obvious fix of dredging the rivers actually would not solve the system problem of preventing the flooding. Put simply the capacity of the rivers is not sufficient, even if dredged to increase capacity by 50%, to carry away the volume of water on the land fast enough to prevent flooding if the recent rainfall is repeated.

The RSPB, for example, are promoting the need to look at a range of measures which suggests a level of systems thinking to the problem. These include holding water in upstream catchment areas and releasing it slowly, allowing flood plains to do what they say, i.e. flood, and designing town rainwater drainage systems to delay rainfall being released.

This situation also highlights the human issue when confronted by a crisis. Human nature demonstrated in these circumstances seems to demand instant answers, someone to blame, and a quick fix. In the face of this pressure it is hard to maintain an unbiased and long term view of what needs to be done. But this is the challenge that systems thinkers must stand up to.

It is only by taking this systems view, and recognising that our man-made systems such as towns, farms and transport systems have to work within the bigger natural system, that we will reach sustainable solutions to these issues.

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