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Sanday: an Orkney island where 1 could become 5

By August 3, 2015Flood Protection News
Flooded Winter Fields

The island of Sanday is part of the Orkneys and lies 70 miles north of the rugged coast of Scotland. A long sliver of beach-edged lowland, it is 13 miles in length and at its maximum is 5 miles wide.

Home to almost 500 residents, Sanday is famed for being a place to visit for golden shorelines, rare breeds of birds, places of archaeological importance and a tranquil way of life. With a maximum elevation however of only 20 metres and subjected to the tidal surges from the North Sea, it is an idyll vulnerable to flooding; so much so that some experts are predicting that the island could, over time, break into up to five small islands.

Flooding on Sanday

All the Orkney islands are vulnerable to the seas which can lash the shorelines at wind speeds of over 100mph. Sanday is particularly prone to residents needing to use their flood barriers due to the land being so close to sea level. Known as a ‘bellwether’ island; meaning it will be the start of a trend of islands which are submerged or destroyed through climate change. It is also predicted that it could be one of the first islands on the planet to become uninhabitable because of environmental changes. Even more worrying is the fact the timeframe suggested is that this could happen by the end of this century.

cows-flood-plainSanday is home to one of the most important Neolithic sites in the world and this too is under threat. Skara Brae is a stone age village which attracts thousands of visitors each year and whilst ironically it was discovered following the land being washed away during a violent storm, the shoreline find is now itself at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels.

Meteorological records show that severe storms are becoming more common and the sea defences of the island are being breached with more frequency as the years pass. The island has already suffered being temporarily split in half following record wind speeds of 132mph when flooding divided the population in 2007. It is thought that it will not be long before this becomes a permanent feature and Sanday then becomes two islands; with more separation to follow.

The winter of 2010 was a particularly worrying time for those living on Sanday as well as incredibly challenging for the environmental agency authorities.  Defences already in place were no match for what was to take place as the islanders found themselves under water for months rather than days or weeks. Fields lay mud-soaked, farm roads were impassable and rotting seaweed hung on farm gates following a high tide combined with a storm which washed away the coastal defence system.

Action being taken

Following the spells of increased flooding, environmental agencies and their partners pushed forward with their implementation of Flood Risk Management Plans, including drawing inland flood lines around Sanday. This line, created by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) created a flood map for the island and now affects issues such as planning permission with regard to the new build of homes. It also governs the plans for coastal management and erosion monitoring processes.  The local authority has carried out surveys and is working on long term solutions such as wave attenuation and the construction of direct flood defences to minimise the risks to the lives of those living there, property and the livestock which is the mainstay income of many.

There are also draft proposals for property level protection. Lists of residential and commercial buildings which have flooding potential of less than 0.6 metres are being drawn up for the introduction of individual resistance measures. Action is also being discussed for resilience measures for buildings where flooding is expected to be over 0.6 metres. Whilst this will not reduce the number of times there is a flood, it will help with the potentially devastating impact.

For those living on Sanday

Islanders are obviously concerned about the risk of flooding to their homes as well as the long term effects on their surrounding environment. The annual average damages for all sources of flooding on Sanday is £520,000 and there are 60 residential dwellings deemed to have a medium likelihood of being flooded. The air ambulance uses the island air strip in an emergency but is unable to land when this is cut off.

Many have emergency evacuation plans in place and with the work of the Sanday Development Trust nurturing relationships with authority bodies, there is a community movement to ensure all can reach safety when needed and flood barriers are deployed by householders. There is also the constant push to keep the needs of the island high in the eyes of those who are key decision-makers in relation to protecting their vulnerable livelihoods.

The future for Sanday

In ancient times, Sanday was a group of several islands which gradually joined up through the action of the silting of sand in the gaps between each islet. The reverse is now taking place and the sand is being washed away to – at some point – create a new Sanday.

Whilst flooding is not a new event for Sanday or indeed any of the other islands which make up this stunning part of the UK, the level of incidence and ferocity is certainly more prevalent than at any time in the past. Whilst there has been anecdotal evidence of the island being at the mercy of the elements for over 100 years, the most recent flooding of 2005, 2007 and 2013 mean that there is now very little time left to prevent the permanent split of an island famed for beaches as beautiful as those in the Maldives.