Stormy waters: Flooding events are on the rise in Scotland
A month of rain – that’s how the Met Office has described October in the east of Scotland after the region endured its wettest October since records began in 1836.
Parts of the east experienced 235.9mm of rain over the 31 days – 82 per cent higher than the monthly average, and with some areas seeing well over twice their average rainfall for the month.
Severe flooding caused chaos and tragedy in the region during Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán. Two red weather warnings were uniquely issued during Babet, as well as a series less severe alerts. The Met Office’s chief meteorologist Andy Page described the autumn weather in the east as “an exceptional event”.
While the final report by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has not yet been published, hundreds of homes were evacuated and, tragically, Storm Babet claimed the lives of two people in Angus; a 56-year-old man was killed by a tree falling on his van and a 57-year-old woman was swept into a swollen river.
North Perthshire, the constituency of former Deputy First Minister John Swinney, has been greatly affected by flooding and communities have experienced severe damage in some cases. He says the flooding and damage to infrastructure is “much more extensive” than anything he has seen before and describes some previously “meandering watercourses” within his constituency as having become “monsters”.
He notes that the flooding has impacted communities of different sizes, such as villages like Invergowrie, isolated rural communities, as well as some homes in Perth. And while Swinney, who represented Brechin when it was flooded in 2002, acknowledges the impact the communities he serves has been “comparatively low” when compared to other areas in the east of Scotland, he describes the impact flooding causes on people’s psyche.
“In my experience, flooding is probably the most traumatic thing next to bereavement for many people and households because of the degree it absolutely turns your life upside down and does huge damage.”
Tess White, MSP for the North East of Scotland region, has spent weeks visiting affected areas and said some of the communities she serves have experienced “extensive damage”. The period during the red weather warnings was handled well because communities and energy companies, for the most part, managed to keep the power on, she added.
“We were fortunate that the power in a lot of the areas that were flooded stayed on. In Brechin power was lost for about four hours, and SSEN (Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks) was working very hard behind the scenes. This was so important because a lot of people who had to evacuate their homes found out via Facebook.”
She continued: “It is so lucky that more didn’t lose their lives.”
White describes the aftermath left inside homes as “horrific” and says many of the people do not want to return, adding that what is on the floor “is not mud”. The smell is “rancid”, and it has seeped “through to the core of the homes”, she says.
While flooding is not a new phenomenon in Scotland, there has been a sharp rise in flooding incidents according to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS). Figures for 2022/23 show there have been 3,139 reported incidents, a sharp rise on the 1,617 in the 12 months previous.
Professor Trevor Hoey, a professor of river science at Brunel University London, described events of October as “pretty unusual” for the region and said they are more likely to occur in the west of the country. The reason for flooding on such a scale is “all in the sequence”, he says.
“The ground is pretty saturated for this time of year in the region, which is somewhat normal. To some extent, it is what we call antecedent conditions – which are wet conditions before a storm that cause the ground to become saturated. Therefore, there is not a lot of capacity in the ground this time of year, and not many leaves on trees, meaning there’s not much evaporation going on.
“Why did some places flood worse than others? Well, some of that is down to the shape of the topography. There are places where the rivers are quite well confined naturally, but when you get to the lowland areas, rivers have the capacity to take the water they normally get, but if you get more rainfall and higher flows than normal and if they have been constrained by human activity that’s where you can see flooding.”
Hoey says Brechin, which was the worst affected area, is an “interesting one”, pointing to human construction on the river, such as the bridge, which is one of the oldest stone crossings in Scotland.
“People have partly blocked the river a long time ago”, he says.
Man-made structures have caused issues on the River South Esk through the town before, he says: “There was a flax mill just beside where a lot of the flooding occurred in the 1700s.”
Since then, there have been six flooding events in the town in the 20th century alone.
Around Scotland’s watercourses, there is “all sorts of evidence” of humans having “strained rivers”, and there is “a long history of human modification”. Although Hoey argues that often this does not make any difference to flooding, modification “gives the potential” for it.
The local response, both Swinney and White say, was crucial.
Swinney said: “The communities have developed their own resilience capability, and I think this is one of the most interesting things that have emerged. They have storage units that house sandbags and various other flood defences. It is really important that we capture the community responsiveness and encourage it, and I am encouraging the government to see how that could be done.”
In Brechin, the community “rallied round” and provided “basics like food, water, and sanitary equipment”, White added.
But White, who continues to emphasise that more lives could have been lost during the flooding, asks: “What would have happened if the communities hadn’t rallied round?”
Swinney says he “has no doubt” that without the community response “more homes would have been flooded” and says their involvement is crucial while councils are stretched as they “know the lay of the land” and the “danger points”. He is now asking the Scottish Government to grant “a small sum” so that more of these groups can be established.
SEPA also played a crucial part in mobilising resilience, setting up flood defences in remote and rural areas, while communicating which areas were in danger of flooding as the days played out. But White fears the organisation is still feeling the effects of a crippling cyber attack in December 2020.
“They have been devastated after the cyber attack. And I’m going to do further work on their funding because they are absolutely critical to this, and I worry that they don’t have the right amount of support.”
The impact from the two storms has been felt not just by households, but by industry too, namely the agriculture sector, which is the third largest employer in Scotland.
Speaking in October, the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Scotland, Martin Kennedy, said that farmers will be left to foot a “bill for millions when the mop-up is finally completed” and he described the damage in some areas as “unprecedented”.
Kennedy has called on the Scottish Government to “consider what short-term support” it can offer while saying that in the longer term: “A realistic margin from the supply chain that builds enough of a buffer to absorb this type of hit is essential. It simply cannot be absorbed by businesses on the current price structures.”
White, who has farmers in her region who have seen their livelihoods affected by the flood damage, said “we can’t keep overlooking the farmers, they have been missed”. She added that two separate farmers said the flood damage has been exacerbated because “we don’t dredge”; one farmer told her “people care more about the mussels than us” and it has become “difficult to get a license to dredge”.
While this may be the case, Hoey explains it is not a long-term solution. Dredging makes areas of the waterways “deeper and wider” allowing them to carry more water, but the “river would just put it back there in a few days, and there would be no long-term effect”, he argued.
The events seemingly came as surprise. Hoey explains that Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán took “unusual paths” coming “up the North Sea bringing relatively warm air – which tends to bring more moisture”.
“The fact that we have two storms in a week is no coincidence because the weather conditions that gave rise to the first one are the same as the second. It’s important to remember that events do cluster, that’s a normal occurrence in meteorology.”
He says a third event in the cluster “is possible”.
“Looking at the pressure forecasts, fundamentally things aren’t going to change a lot in the next week or so. There will still be westerly, quite intense winds. The chances of another storm developing in the next couple of weeks are not insignificant, I wouldn’t say definite but I’m guessing more of a 50 per cent chance.
“I think the probability of getting something quite as extreme as Ciarán for example, which set a record for the lowest pressure recorded, is quite low. But the probability of getting quite a wet storm coming up the east coast is reasonable.”
Few disagree that in order to secure vulnerable areas from flooding, better planning must be in place. In 2016, the Scottish Government installed flood defence walls standing at 3.8 metres in Brechin along the banks of the River South Esk. The £16.3m project was designed to provide a one-in-200-year standard of defence and represented one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in Angus. But only seven years on from the installation, they were breached as water levels rose to 4.4 metres during Babet.
Swinney was the elected representative for Brechin during the last major flooding in 2002 and was in government during the installation of the defences that were put in place in response.
He said: “I remember there was all the meteorological and hydrological information, the defences were built high. Some people considered them to be a bit obtrusive and now they’ve been overtopped.
“This was completed seven years ago, and I think that tells us that the climate change that we have been fearing is with us.”
“Proper learning has to now take place”, White says. But she is concerned that there is not a coherent recovery plan, arguing “we don’t have the right people in the right places”, and she questions whether the Scottish Government is focusing enough funding “in the right areas”.
“We need to build local resilience. What happens if people can’t get on Facebook next time?
What happens if the power is down? We must have a programme where you can get to people quickly. And in terms of funding, we need to make sure that you activate the schemes. I have one person who lost their business, and they said in the last storm, which was nowhere near as bad as this, he got just over £1,000. People need immediate help.”
The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government includes a section that says: “Prepare for the consequences of global climate change by publishing a new Climate Change Adaptation Programme and consulting on Scotland’s first Strategy for Flood Resilience.”
White says this should be “priority number one” because “we are talking about risk of life and risk of livelihoods”.
She added: “We need funding now; people need their livelihoods secured. Farmers haven’t just lost their crops, we’ve lost part of our food security, which is major. Shelve all other projects and put the safety and security of people our people first.
“This is a warning sign. So many things went wrong, and the Scottish Government must heed that warning.”