East Anglia has ‘huge amounts to do’ to adapt to climate change, warns outgoing Environment Agency director

PUBLISHED: 06:30 08 June 2019

Felixstowe storm surge Picture: Allan King

Felixstowe storm surge Picture: Allan King

Allan King 14 IP4 4PP 2

Dr Charles Beardall OBE says climate change is “threatening our existence on this planet”.

Charles Beardall at the opening of the Ipswich Flood Barrier Picture: Environment AgencyCharles Beardall at the opening of the Ipswich Flood Barrier Picture: Environment Agency

Dr Beardall retired last week after 14 years as area director for East Anglia at the Environment Agency. He had worked at the government Agency for a total of 24 years and was the deputy director at Suffolk Wildlife Trust prior to that.

He said: "When I started my career in the 1980s the big issues for the environment were things like acid rain and pesticides, depletion of the ozone layer and habitat destruction. Climate change barely got a mention - in fact it was quite a fringe issue.

"It's amazing that in just one career we've escalated from something that was nothing to something that is threatening our existence on this planet. We have a huge amount to do to make sure East Anglia adapts quickly to the changes that are coming, not only to the coast but also to the sustainable management of water resources, biodiversity and the economy of our region."

READ MORE: Make best use of time to prepare for sea level rise, says coast flood expert

Massive implications

Charles Beardall with Dr Therese Coffey MP at the opening of the Ipswich Flood Barrier  Picture: Environment AgencyCharles Beardall with Dr Therese Coffey MP at the opening of the Ipswich Flood Barrier Picture: Environment Agency

Dr Beardall, who was awarded an OBE for services to Flood Protection and Combating Coastal Erosion in East Anglia in 2016, added: "All the data and the reports coming out of organisations like the United Nations and the International Panel on Climate Change show that the challenges are escalating with more storm surges and hotter summers predicted. The challenges are several orders of magnitudes greater than what we were facing 25 years ago."

He continued: "The latest climate impact report for 2018-2070 predicts temperatures could reach a peak maximum of 10°C hotter than they are today. If you think we hit 35°C last summer - we could be hitting 45°C by 2070 and that has massive implications.

"Waters are rising on our coast generally because East Anglia is sinking but then there is sea-level rise caused by climate change. The reasonable worst case peak prediction is a rise of 1.2metres by 2100. If you think about the concentration of population around our coastline - that is extremely significant."

Coastal erosion

Last month, the national chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Boyd, warned that entire communities might have to be moved away from coasts and rivers in the coming years because of climate change and Dr Beardall said it is likely that places in East Anglia will be among this number.

"This coast has been eroding for thousands of years - in fact, north Suffolk and south Norfolk has the fastest eroding coast in Europe," he said.

East Anglian pigs wallowing to keep cool during the 2018 heatwave Picture: PETER CRICHTONEast Anglian pigs wallowing to keep cool during the 2018 heatwave Picture: PETER CRICHTON

"One big change over my time has been that we have started working with partners such as the coastal local authorities and others to develop shoreline management plans, where we have looked at the areas where we can hold the line in and where we can't. We can't protect everywhere for ever and we have to focus on those places where we will protect the most people and property.

"Where we do identify a need to protect a location, we have invested in critical coastal defences, such as the Ipswich Flood Barrier, which recently opened and cost nearly £70million and is designed to protect Ipswich from all but the most extreme tides."

Dr Beardall said in the last twenty years "hundreds of millions of pounds" have also been invested in protecting other large conurbations such as Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Clacton and Felixstowe while walls to safeguard the Broads from inundation have also been strengthened.

Water shortages

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While parts of East Anglia are at times threatened by too much water in one place, there is also a risk of us facing a shortage as the climate heats up. This is why, Dr Beardall said, the Environment Agency has also directed a lot of time and energy to ensuring our water resources are "used sustainably" and are not "mined". East Anglia is the driest region in the country and has seen increasing demands on its water supply particularly for irrigation of crops and for household and business use from a growing population.

Storm surge at Cromer Pier in 2015. Picture: Duncan AbelStorm surge at Cromer Pier in 2015. Picture: Duncan Abel

Dr Beardall recalled the drought of summer 1996 shortly after he had arrived at the Agency. "I remember eels crawling out of the River Deben which was even smelling of sulphur," he said.

Since that time, there has been a focus on developing comprehensive water resource management plans with the water companies, as well as reviewing so-called abstraction licences when they come for renewal to ensure that water abstracted from rivers and groundwater stores is sustainable.

"When many of these licences were first issued we didn't have as much of an understanding about their impact or the changing climate as we do now," said Dr Beardall, who acknowledges that water for irrigation in "semi-arid" East Anglia is "a hugely valuable commodity" and says that "as we move into the future, there will be an increased onus on farmers to store more water when it is in excess, so it is available to use when there is less water in summers".

READ MORE: Suffolk county councillors vote to declare a 'climate emergency'

Water transfers

Cromer storm surge damage in 2013. Picture: Chris Mayhew/citizenside.comCromer storm surge damage in 2013. Picture: Chris Mayhew/

He also believes in future there will be a need to pump more water into the region from outside. As an example, he points to the Ely Ouse to Essex Transfer Scheme, which is operated by the Environment Agency, which moves excess water 127km from the Fens through a series of tunnels and down rivers to supply reservoirs in Essex - providing 30% of the county's water during the summer months.

"This is the biggest water transfer scheme in the country and if we don't get it right, there would be a sizeable impact on the economy of Essex every summer," he added.

Dr Beardall will be succeeded by Simon Hawkins who has been Environment Agency Area Director for Hertfordshire and North London for the past two years.

READ MORE: 'It's scary' - what do young people in Suffolk think about climate change?

Facing the biggest tides

The rising storm surge water breaking onto the promenade defences at Lowestoft.  Picture: James Bass PhotographyThe rising storm surge water breaking onto the promenade defences at Lowestoft. Picture: James Bass Photography

During Charles Beardall's time with the Environment Agency the region has faced three major flooding alerts: 2007, 2013 and 2017. Some of the biggest tides came in 2013 when 500 properties were affected - many at Lowestoft.

He said: "A key difference today compared to when I started is back then we had a primitive warning system. Today, it is far more sophisticated and we can alert up to 80% of properties located on flood plains of any potential threats - we can tell them to within centimetres and within minutes, how high the water will rise and when it will arrive."

Awareness among the emergency services has also "hugely improved," he said, enabling them to evacuate places like Great Yarmouth and Jaywick, as they did in 2013 when a flood tide was imminent.

The size of the task of keeping the sea at bay in East Anglia becomes apparent when you learn that 500 miles of coastal flood defences cover the region's shoreline - an incredible quarter of all the UK's coastal defences. Much of this takes the form of mud embankments.

Mr Beardall added: "In 2013 the tides were bigger than 1953 in parts but only in a few places did the water come over the top while there were under ten sites where the defences were breached. The walls have been doing a brilliant job and that night stood up to the test."

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