Movers and shakers: Andy Batchelor
Andy Batchelor, 45, has been involved in Thames flood protection for 27 years. As tidal flood risk manager, he is responsible for deciding when the Thames Barrier is closed, saving London from flooding. ’I‘ve worked here since the barrier went up in 1984. Prior to that, I worked on the bank-raising project downstream – the barrier is just one part of the overall tidal defences. There are other floodgates to manage and I look after 195km of tidal walls and embankments right down to Teddington. So it's important we stop the tide here, but it's also important that the walls and embankments are in place on either side of the river to contain the normal tide you see now
‘The designers envisioned we’d be operating once or twice a year until 2030, but we’ve operated 95 times since 1984 – that’s 95 times London was at risk of flooding. We’re trying to protect the 45 square miles of London that are potentially at tidal flood risk. Within that is the City, Westminster, 400,000 properties, one-and-a-quarter million people and about £80 billion of UK plc.
‘It’s quite easy to know when to use the barrier. Tides come down the east coast and we can monitor those, so we can have a 36-hour forecast of what’s going to happen, which is about two tides ahead. We’re looking at the tide from the coast, but we’re also looking at the rainfall and flow coming over Teddington. Put the two together and when they meet, will the water level go over the walls in central London? If that’s the case, we close the barrier. There are ten gates in all, and we gradually close those over an hour-and-a-half, so that upstream of us is essentially a reservoir that’s only taking in rainwater from Teddington. The embankment is higher on the eastern side of the barrier and we can have a four-metre difference in water level on either side. It’s like a giant lock.
‘When the barrier was designed in the late ’70s, climate change wasn’t talked about, but what the designers knew was that the tides were increasing and sea levels rising; they estimated levels would rise 8mm per year. Fortunately, it’s not rising as much as they anticipated. There’s been a lot of science about climate change in the last ten years, but the only thing we can say for certain is that the sea level is rising and will continue to do so. At the moment, that’s still within manageable parameters, and with easy adaptation we can carry on safeguarding London for the foreseeable future.
‘There should be no need to replace the barrier. We’re built to survive a once-in-a-thousand-years event forecast to 2030. That’s an extremely high level of protection. Most coastal defences are built for once-in-a-hundred-years events. But as time moves on our level of protection gradually erodes. We’re looking to what we need to do in the next 100 years. The Thames Barrier will be very much part of that because the way it’s been built means we can modify it easily. But we’ll also have to rearrange, raise and rebuild some other defences.
‘We’re moving away from building defences ever higher and more towards risk management. In London, we have a lot of buildings right on the river’s edge, but we want to put a green area in front and the building further back. That way the river can have room to flood on occasion. With appropriate flood warnings, it’s manageable and there are places around London where we can do that. For instance, the river wall in front of Tate Modern is smaller and if the river flooded, it would go right up to the wall of the gallery. Basically, we’re moving towards a position where we say, yes, the river will flood here on occasion, but does it matter? The river goes away again. Just as long as you design and plan for that purpose.
‘It’s important to remember that by building the defences here we haven’t had to raise the defences around Victoria Embankment from Bazalgette’s time, so people in the centre of London aren’t living behind a massive wall. The barrier cost £500 million when it was built but you’re looking now at an asset worth up to £200 billion.
‘I’m proud of the job and take it extremely seriously. You’re controlling mother nature and safeguarding people and property in London so people can go about their normal daily business.’
Thames Barrier Information Centre, 1 Unity Way, Woolwich, SE18 (020 8305 4188).
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