Blog: Internship to map schemes that use natural processes to reduce flood risk

Masters student Duncan Nicholls spent a three month internship researching and mapping schemes which use natural processes to reduce flood risk across Great Britain.


Flooding has become more common in the press over the years and now it’s a real worry to many people every time it rains heavily, which it’s done a lot this winter.

The government invests very large sums of money to create flood defences, usually made out of concrete or similar materials to protect people and their properties. These defences are usually made from materials such as concrete and only have a single purpose. But can natural flood defences be utilised and what additional benefits might they offer?

As part of my MSc Sustainable Water Management at Lancaster University I gained a three month internship with the JBA Trust. My role was to use the research and data presentation skills I gained during the course to identify schemes where natural processes have been used to combat flood risk and to quantify how well they work and what benefits they provide. I was then required to create an interactive map out of this data.

A project report which documents the process involved in creating the first version of the interactive map is available to download here.  The latest version of the interactive map is available here.

The research stage

The JBA Trust were able to source a few examples of schemes that used natural processes from their colleagues at JBA Consulting, which specialises in flood risk. These examples built the foundation of the work and highlighted the need for an adaptive project.

I discussed the criteria necessary to best describe each scheme and a research template with JBA staff with experience in the field. However after studying the examples from JBA Consulting it was clear that not all the data was easy to gather and depended heavily on the person who wrote the report on the scheme.

The Environment Agency were able to provide a list of schemes where it was aware of flood relief being carried out by utilising natural processes, although no details were given.

I could then find additional information from the internet because the beauty of the nature based approaches to flood risk reduction is the multiple benefits that are created. Whilst reducing flooding with hard engineering may be highly effective it does nothing for the natural environment. Using natural processes that ultimately increase the storage capacity of the landscape can lead to large increases in biodiversity and the creation of green spaces.

Examples of these natural processes include: leaky dams, engineered debris dams, deepening ponds, blocking drainage channels in the moors and re-meandering rivers so they flow in a more natural route through the landscape. All of these examples hold the water in the landscape longer and therefore reduce the total flow in the rivers at any one time. By keeping the water in the landscape wildlife benefit from having a larger source of water to facilitate growing of plants, which in turn can encourage more species of birds. Slowing the flow of water through the landscape can also lead to water being cleaned via natural processes and reducing the cost to water companies that otherwise have to use large quantities of materials and energy to replicate the effects.

Increasing biodiversity is the focus of many agencies across the UK that are not directly involved with flooding but the work they do can often be classed as working with natural processes and the improvements seen to wildlife are well documented.

My research was desk based and used a wide range of sources and of information to compile a large database of 136 effective schemes.  Although many more schemes are sure to exist, the size of the database was limited by the length of my internship and lack of publication on agency websites about smaller schemes.

The data presentation stage

Because the data was gathered from a wide range of sources, often with multiple sources for one scheme it was essential to have a good way of collating it all so it was consistent. I also had to find open source software to present the data in a geo-spatial format as a map. After much searching and lots of trial and error I decided to use leaflet maps that are created in QGIS, though they needed lots of modification to be fit for use on the JBA Trust website.

Creating the map to the design specifications of the Trust took time but I eventually managed to create a very usable interactive map of all the schemes and their associated data which I had gathered over the three months.

Working with JBA was fantastic and the end result is something I can be proud of. I now have a job with an environmental consultancy and have carried on using the skills I developed during the internship on a day to day basis.