This flood protection barrier reaches new heights

Creating a self-sufficient flood-resilient society.
Deena Theresa
In Kufstein, a street was converted to a canal by erecting Boxwalls on both sides.NOAQ

Last year saw climate events wreak havoc in Europe, with parts of Belgium and Germany pummelled by deadly floods.

In what could be called a narrow escape, the Austrian city of Kufstein, which was hit by severe storms, erected structures called Boxwall barriers, made by NOAQ Flood Protection AB, a Swedish company developing and selling flood protection barriers on the global market. They converted a street into a canal, by placing self-anchoring Boxwall barriers on either side. This led the water past the buildings, protecting them, and down to the river.

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Strangely enough, the Boxwall barriers weren't bought early that year in anticipation of the rains. "They were bought by the fire brigade in Kufstein, years ago," says Sigurd Melin, CEO of NOAQ. Now, that is thinking ahead. After the storms, NOAQ began receiving more orders from Kufstein and neighboring cities, Melin says. 

Boils down to climate change

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average global temperature has risen by 0.14° F (0.08° C) per decade since 1880, with the rate of warming rising to 0.32° F (0.18° C) per decade since 1981. In 2020, the Earth's surface temperature was 1.76° F (0.98° Celsius) warmer than the twentieth-century average and 2.14˚F (1.19˚C) warmer than in 1880.

Higher temperatures on land and in oceans increase the rate of evaporation and lead to increases in the air’s capacity to hold moisture, which in turn increases precipitation, increasing flood risk.

Earth’s warmer and moister atmosphere and warmer oceans also make  hurricanes more intense, producing more rainfall and affecting a wider area.

“While it is difficult to make a direct link between an individual extreme event and climate change, it is clear that we need to be prepared to face more intense and more frequent extreme hydro-meteorological events due to climate change,” Pascal Peduzzi, Director of the GRID-Geneva (United Nations Environment Programme) and professor at the FA Forel Department of Environmental and Water Sciences, Faculty of Sciences of the University of Geneva told UN Environment Programme in 2020.

Human-induced climate change can cause more dramatic and unpredictable events, catching people unawares. Consequently, humans must be prepared at all times to protect themselves from nature's fury. 

However, despite the evidence of the increased risk, property owners are sometimes reluctant to take action, having expressed unfamiliarity and low confidence about the ability of flood protection products, according to 'Property level flood protection: a new effective and affordable solution'.

There are also plenty of examples of expensive products that have proven to be ineffective. This has led to a reliance in many areas on traditional sandbags, which tend to be effective in smaller areas and for shorter periods of time.

NOAQ's flood protection products include their latest, the NOAQ Boxwall, which is a self-anchoring mobile flood barrier that is easy to use and fast to deploy. According to NOAQ's website, the free-standing temporary flood protection barriers can be built up by ordinary people, those directly affected by floods.

IE spoke to NOAQ's CEO Sigurd Melin and CFO, Ann Blanche-Sahlqvist, on the unique selling proposition of the Boxwall, how it could disrupt the market for flood protection products and make a real difference in the fight against flooding, creating a flood-resilient society in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interesting Engineering: Studies have reported that people who live in higher-risk flood areas are aware of the risk, yet refuse to take action or adopt appropriate flood-protection measures. Do people assume the flood protection procedure to be complex?

Most people whose properties are prone to flooding think that it is a natural disaster and they're victims. As a result, they think they're helpless. Also, the process is depicted to be complicated. For example, if you're protecting your house with sandbags, you'll require tons of sand, a lot of time to make the embankment, and a labor force. The Boxwall requires none of those. The barrier can be set up with the help of your family members, or by yourself. This means that those who were victims in the past will be able to cope with the situation themselves. There will be a significant difference in future flooding once they have realized that they can protect themselves.

The barrier can be set up with the help of your family members, or by yourself. This means that those who were victims in the past will be able to cope with the situation themselves.

IE: How was the idea of the Boxwall born? Tell us more about the barriers. 

The idea came to mind in 1993, during the floods in North Sweden. I saw images of people carrying sandbags amid some 1,000 tons of water. The weight of the sand in the sandbags is what stops the water. But if you can fill the bags with water, you'll have as much ballast as you wish; it just must be handled differently. So, the first idea was to make big tubes, fill them with water, and place them to divert and block floodwater. But the tube rolled away. So we made two tubes and put them together in a way that formed the number eight. But that profile began to float as the water inside was not heavier than the floodwater. After a few prototypes, in 1997 we started to manufacture what we now call the Tubewall which was an airfield tube ballasted and anchored by water. I kept developing that idea to the current product which is anchored by floodwater and not filled with anything.

The first Boxwall, BW52, was launched in 2007. And the new model, BW102, was launched last year. Each box in the barrier weighs 15 kg (34 lbs) but is automatically ballasted by up to 1.2 tons of water. They weigh less than one percent of a corresponding sandbag dike, and are 100 times faster to build. The classic model weighs no more than 7 kg per running meter, and a 100 meter long barrier can be built up by two people in less than 24 minutes. While the classic model is half a meter tall, the latest has a height of one meter.  You don't need to have a comprehensive fan or compressor to fill it with air. You don't have to be concerned with leakage either. It is a foolproof, simple device that can withstand pressure. This means everyone can use it.

IE: Does the simplicity of the Boxwall make it different from the other flood barriers in the market? 

There's more. When I started the development of the tube, there were no other temporary flood barriers on the market. The Boxwall uses the weight of the water for stabilizing. Many products in the market are water-filled tubes, but they need to be anchored somewhere. We don't need that as floodwater automatically anchors our product to the ground.

Many products in the market are water-filled tubes, but they need to be anchored somewhere. We don't need that as floodwater automatically anchors our product to the ground.

In a way, we use floodwater as a resource. Also, the Boxwall is made of polypropylene and can be reused multiple times for emergencies.

ABS: I must emphasize the reusability. The same barrier can be transported and used in another city or town that has flooded. The Boxwall barrier also poses zero hindrance to the surroundings, unlike sandbags that can destroy gardens. 

IE: How has climate change and increased flooding created a demand for the Boxwall?

Flood protection barriers like the Boxwall had a big market even without climate change, as flooding has been a persistent problem. But with climate change, the demand has increased further. For example, countries like Saudi Arabia or Jordan that don't anticipate floods, are getting flooded in recent years. As a result, we have a good market there. And these countries do not have stormwater drainage systems as they've a dry climate generally. They can use the Boxwall to divert the water away from vulnerable places and divert it to a less-risk place. 

NOAQ currently has distributors in some 35 countries. Melin tells us that even their distributors need to have a refined understanding of how flooding works. "They need to instruct people that the Boxwall will not be effective on sand and gravel. It should be flat, relatively smooth, and not prone to erosion. Paved streets and cavalry grass are perfect. So, we need distributors who are also prepared to educate people on the same and render support, not just buy and sell," he adds.

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