Britain's floods: causes, costs and consequences

Residential areas in York, northern England, were hit with devastating floods after the River Foss burst its banks on December 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Justin Tallis) (AFP/File)

London (AFP) - With more floods forecast Wednesday as Storm Frank sweeps in, Britain is asking whether its defences can deal with extreme weather events, with many accusing David Cameron's government of negligence.

What has happened?

In early December, Storm Desmond brought the country's first wave of heavy rain, with streets submerged in northwest England and 60,000 homes left without power.

The town of Honister in Cumbria recorded 341.4mm of rain in 24 hours, a new British rainfall record for a 24-hour period, while nearby Thirlmere recorded 405mm in 48 hours, a national record for a two-day period.

Just as it was recovering in time for the Christmas holidays, northern England was once again battered by high winds and heavy rains.

Much of the historic city of York was left under several feet of water while flooding also affected the northern cities of Leeds and Manchester.

A spell of dry weather has helped the clean-up operation, but Secretary of State for Environment Rory Stewart said he was "very concerned" by the imminent arrival of "Frank".

Why so much rain?

Britain has a long history of extreme rainfall events, the last of which dates back only two years. Some have been known to cause mass deaths, such as the 1953 floods that claimed more than 300 lives.

Environmental experts suspect the frequency of recent floods is partly down to man.

"Climate change has played an important part," said John Gummer, Chairman of Britain's independent Committee on Climate Change.

"These things might well have happened but climate change makes them more regular and much worse," he added.

What are the costs and consequences?

The most recent floods have inundated more than 6,700 buildings, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and forcing the government to call in army reinforcements, with 500 soldiers mobilised and 1,000 in reserve.

Combined with Storm Desmond, the damage could exceed £5 billion (6.7 billion euros, $7.4 billion), according to preliminary estimates by auditing firm KPMG.

Have the flood defences failed?

The British government has spent around £1.8 billion in recent years on flood defences designed to protect towns and villages.

However, Cameron has admitted that they have not been a total success, saying: "It's clear that in some cases they have been overtopped and overrun."

A prime example is the flood barrier at York, which became submerged by the rising water, disabling some of the electrical wiring inside.

Fearing all the pumps could be damaged, the authorities decided to temporarily open the barrier, causing further flooding and leading to the River Foss bursting its banks.

What is the political fallout?

"You would have thought David Cameron had learnt the lesson from the floods of 2013/14. Apparently not," said Justin Bowden of the GMB union, blaming cuts to the Environment Agency for the failings.

Natalie Bennett, leader of Britain's Green Party, accused Cameron of being "the modern equivalent of the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned."

Cameron is not the only public servant in the line of fire, with the Daily Mail accusing Environment Agency chief Philip Dilley of "sunbathing" in the Caribbean "while Britain suffers its worst floods in decades".

Cameron defended himself as he put on his Wellington boots for a walk around York, saying the government would look at suggestions for extra defences.

What are the solutions?

David Rooke, an Environment Agency official, has called for a "complete rethink" about the threat of flooding, with nearly one in five houses now at risk, according to The National Association of Estate Agents.

Among the proposed solutions are improved warning systems, more use of waterproof construction materials and less deforestation.

"Ground floors of homes can be designed either to hold out water, or can be designed to anticipate water, which puts less stress on the structure of the building," Richard Coutts, an architect, told AFP, also citing the possibility of amphibious and floating homes.