Delivering sustainable flood risk management: guidance (2019)

Second edition of statutory guidance to SEPA, local authorities and Scottish Water on fulfilling their responsibilities under the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009.

1. Understanding flood risk


Flood risk is a measure of the likelihood that a flood will happen and of its potential adverse consequences. The long term aim of the Scottish Government is to reduce this risk.

Robust and reliable information on the causes and consequences of flooding are needed to promote well-informed decisions on how to tackle flood risk.

Sources of flooding

This guidance covers most potential sources of flooding in Scotland. Exceptions are floods caused by the sudden failure of infrastructure such as dams and those caused solely by a failure in or blockage of a sewerage system. Scottish Water has statutory responsibilities for maintaining the sewerage network. Floods caused solely by a failure in or blockage of a sewerage system should be dealt with through this existing channel. Under the Reservoirs (Scotland) Act 2011, SEPA regulates reservoirs to ensure they are safe and well maintained to reduce the risk of an uncontrolled release of water from these structures.

In fulfilling their flood risk management responsibilities, SEPA and the responsible authorities should focus on the sources of greatest risk.

  • River (fluvial) flooding - this occurs when the water draining from the surrounding land exceeds the capacity of the watercourse.
  • Coastal flooding – is caused by high sea levels, waves overtopping defences or the inundation of low-lying land at the coasts or in estuaries. Coastal flooding is often linked to coastal erosion.
  • Surface water (pluvial) flooding - is caused when rainfall water ponds or flows over the ground before it enters a natural or man-made drainage system or watercourse; or when water cannot enter the drainage system because the system is already full to capacity.
  • Groundwater flooding - this occurs when water levels in the ground rise above surface levels.
  • Sewer flooding - this occurs when combined sewers are overwhelmed by heavy rainfall. Sewer flooding is often closely linked to surface water flooding, and may contain untreated foul water.

Characteristics of a flood

The causes and consequences of flooding can only be fully understood when the characteristics of a flood are examined. The Act specifies particular flood hazard characteristics that must be assessed and mapped, which are described in more detail in Table 1. Flood hazard maps will show where flooding has the potential to do harm. Where necessary, additional factors included in Table 1 may be considered to give a full picture of the likely impacts resulting from a flood.

Table 1 Flood hazard characteristics




Helps show where flood waters will penetrate and what may be affected.


Helps understand the potential impacts of a flood. For instance, extensive shallow water flooding is likely to be less damaging than more localised areas of deeper water


The duration of a flood can have an impact on the damage caused, for example long duration flooding can increase impacts to crops and services.

Velocity/ flow

High velocity flood waters can increase risk to health and safety and cause greater damage.

Water environment

Floods that carry pollutants, for instance sewer flooding often carries a greater risk to health and safety as well as the potential to cause greater economic damage.

Sediment content

Flood waters with a high sediment or debris content can create additional risks to health and safety, and may increase the risk of damage to infrastructure (e.g. bridges).

Likelihood of flooding

For flood mapping purposes, the Act requires three flood scenarios to be assessed.

  • High likelihood: A flood event is likely to occur in the defined area on average once in every ten years (1:10). Or a 10% chance of happening in any one year.
  • Medium likelihood: A flood event is likely to occur in the defined area on average once in every two hundred years (1:200). Or a 0.5% chance of happening in any one year.
  • Low likelihood: A flood event is likely to occur in the defined area on average once in every thousand years (1:1000). Or a 0.1% chance of happening in any one year.

A variety of methods can be used to estimate the probability of flooding. SEPA should take a lead role to support and disseminate guidance on how to apply appropriate methods to analyse flood probabilities, including techniques to examine multiple or combined sources of flooding

In many instances, different sources of flooding can combine to intensify a flood. For example, high tides in estuaries can occur simultaneously with high river levels. Understanding these interactions (including their likelihood) will be an important part of understanding and managing flood risk.

Assessing the impacts of flooding

A wide range of impacts to society, the economy, the environment and cultural heritage should be assessed where appropriate, including those set out in Table 2.

To gain a fuller appreciation of the impacts of flooding, SEPA and the responsible authorities should also consider the following factors:

  • Exposure - what will be exposed to the flood;
  • Vulnerability - the vulnerability of those things that are exposed to the hazard; including the ability to recover, which may include the availability of insurance;
  • Value - the value of things exposed to the hazard, which could include costs or how critical the item is.

Table 2 Measuring the impacts of flooding


Categories and descriptions

Human health (social)

Human health: includes immediate or consequential impacts.

Community: impacts to emergency response, education, health and social work facilities.


Water body Status: permanent or long-term impacts to ecological or chemical status of surface water bodies.

Protected areas: adverse permanent or long-term impacts to protected areas or water bodies.

Pollution sources: sources of potential pollution in the event of a flood, such as IPPC and COMAH installations, or point or diffuse sources.

Wider environment: Other potential permanent or long-term environmental impacts, such as those on soil, biodiversity, flora and fauna, etc.

Cultural heritage

Cultural assets: permanent or long-term impacts to cultural heritage, which could include archaeological sites / monuments, and architectural sites.


Property: impacts to property, which could include homes, insurance availability

Infrastructure: impacts to infrastructural assets such as utilities, energy generation and transmission, transport, storage and communication.

Rural land use: impacts to uses of the land, such as agricultural activity (livestock, arable and horticulture), forestry, mineral extraction and fishing.

Economic activity: impacts to other sectors of economic activity, such as manufacturing, construction, retail, services and other sources of employment.

Wherever possible, both aspects of vulnerability should be considered - susceptibility and resilience. Susceptibility is a measure of how prone to impacts particular elements will be during a flood. For example, the elderly, frail or sick can be more susceptible to injuries or loss of life. Resilience is a measure of the ability of something to recover from a flood. For instance, businesses can be more resilient to flooding through the use of insurance. Buildings can be made more resilient through the use of water resilient materials in construction.

In particular, measuring the impacts on and potential benefits to the environment poses a significant challenge, and methods to help account for these should be explored and drawn into the flood risk management planning process.

The indirect impacts of flooding can also cause problems. For example, the costs of disruption to transport and power supplies or the costs to emergency services. It is important that these indirect impacts are included wherever practical to do so.

SEPA and the responsible authorities should take account of the outputs from the Mapping Flood Disadvantage 2015[1] research commissioned by the Scottish Government. Flood disadvantage occurs where vulnerable communities coincide with areas which may be exposed to flooding. Identifying flood disadvantage is a useful framework for planning actions in anticipation of the increased risk of flooding and developing recovery strategies in the aftermath of flooding (e.g. considering the social characteristics and flood vulnerabilities of each neighbourhood).

Analysing flood risk

An integrated approach to assessing risk

Many of the assessments undertaken by SEPA will be strategic level assessments that will support the preparation of flood management plans. These assessments will also identify where more targeted or detailed assessment should be carried out by responsible authorities and other organisations that can contribute to the management of floods.

Ultimately this should form a cyclic process where information and knowledge is built up over planning cycles (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Cycle of information and knowledge growth

Figure 2 Cycle of information and knowledge growth

To support the delivery of this integrated approach to assessing and managing flood risk, SEPA should:

  • Make use of available historic flood and gauging data;
  • publish and maintain advice on assessing, modelling, mapping and sharing data. In doing so, SEPA should work alongside the responsible authorities and other organisations to ensure that the information meets the needs of all relevant organisations;
  • take all practicable steps to ensure that national assessments, including the national flood risk assessment and national flood maps, thoroughly consider and reflect local risks and issues;
  • ensure that information generated on flood risk can be used in a consistent way at all stages of the flood risk management planning process, and in particular in the appraisal of actions to manage flood risk;
  • create and manage an Observed Flood Events database in order for information to be shared with the responsible authorities and other interested parties. The responsible authorities should provide active support and information to help SEPA in this work. Where necessary, the Act provides SEPA and local authorities with powers to request information and to seek assistance.

Residual risk and the effectiveness of actions

Residual risk is the risk that remains after management actions have been taken. Residual risks often have a low probability of occurrence, although the impacts can be severe. Residual risk should be considered in flood management decisions. Home and business owners should be encouraged to insure themselves against the residual risk where possible and all actions to manage flooding should include arrangements to deal with residual risks. Flood resilient property repairs can play an important part in managing residual risk.

Understanding the effectiveness of existing actions and residual risk is an important step in identifying management actions. For example:

  • How well are flood defence structures performing against their initial design standard?
  • What difference does flood warning make to public safety?
  • What are the consequences of an event exceeding the design standard?
  • Is insurance available to cover the residual risk?

It is important that existing actions to manage flooding and their effectiveness are taken into account wherever it is practical to do so, particularly when undertaking work that will influence investment decisions, e.g. assessing areas vulnerable to flooding or preparing flood risk management strategies or local flood risk management plans.

Source-pathway-receptor-impact model

Data on historical flood and gauge data are essential to build up a picture of what contributes to flooding in a catchment or on the coast. Additional information can be used to build a good understanding of the links between the sources and impacts of flooding. This will help identify the right combination of actions to tackle particular flooding problems. For instance, where high rates of run-off in upland areas is contributing to flooding problems, actions to store or slow run-off could be considered, including re-vegetating a hill slope to increase the interception of rainfall and increase the roughness of the land surface, thereby slowing runoff.

The same principles apply in urban areas, where an understanding of the sources and pathways of flood waters can help identify sustainable flood risk management actions.

  • To help understand the interaction of different actions across catchments and coasts, SEPA and the responsible authorities should adopt the source – pathway - receptor - impact approach.
  • The approach is a well-established framework in flood risk management. It provides a basis for understanding the causal links between the source of flooding, the route by which it is transmitted and the receptor, which suffers some impact:
  • Sources are the weather events or conditions that result in flooding (e.g. heavy rainfall, rising sea level, waves, river flows etc);
  • Pathways are routes between the source of flood waters and the receptor. These include surface and subsurface flow across the landscape and urban drainage systems;
  • Receptors are the people, industries and built and natural environments that can be impacted upon by flooding;
  • Impacts are the effects on receptors. The severity of any impact will vary depending on the vulnerability of the receptor.

Quantifying flood risk

Risks are evaluated by combining the likelihood and consequence of flooding. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, and the approach adopted should reflect the purpose of the assessment, the scale of the assessment and the data available.

There will be times where risk thresholds will need to be set, for instance, when undertaking the national flood risk assessment and designating potentially vulnerable areas. Risk thresholds are highly subjective and can be influenced by societal preferences, values and opinions of acceptability. SEPA and the responsible authorities should present a consistent opinion of flood risk and its significance or acceptability. This must be done within the context of Government guidance and policy on these matters.

Climate change and other long term trends

Testing proposed flood management actions against long term trends is essential to selecting sustainable actions that will stand the test of time. SEPA and the responsible authorities should continue work to examine future scenarios which can be used to consistently assess the effectiveness of flood risk management decisions and how these should be applied. Wherever possible, a range of future scenarios should be examined, including a ‘worst case’ scenario.

Climate change is likely to have a substantial impact on flooding. SEPA in collaboration with the responsible authorities, and relevant UK and Scottish Government bodies should work to improve information and guidance on the effects of climate change on flood risk. This should include using information gathered over implementation cycles to detect changes in flood patterns, and applying methods to detect and assess trends, and developing new projections for how climate change may affect the likelihood and severity of flooding.

Other long term trends that could have a measurable impact on flood risk should also be considered. Scotland should expect and plan for a change in flood risk as a consequence of population growth and demographic change, as well as from urban creep and changes in land-use.

Dealing with uncertainty

Floods are infrequent phenomena for which it is difficult to predict future events. Uncertainties can be divided into four main areas:

  • natural variability, which can be subdivided into natural variability in time and natural variability in space;
  • knowledge uncertainties that come from a lack of knowledge, for example about the behaviour of defences;
  • modelling and data uncertainties in the quality of models or data that supports assessments, design and appraisal;
  • fundamental uncertainties about things we cannot know, for example how changes in society and technology may affect future greenhouse gas emissions and the level of climate change that occurs.

Uncertainty should be clearly presented in flood risk assessments showing what approaches have been used to quantify them and how decisions have been influenced by uncertainties. Any assumptions made should be clearly set out.

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