I am prompted to post in response to the current flooding crisis and the flat spin into which it has sent our politicians.
Flooding is a horribly intense experience when you are in the middle of it. I know because our home was flooded on Halloween in 2000 – our own Millenial horror show – and we lost so much, including being put out of our home for 6 months. This was particularly worrying for our (at the time) 4 year old whose greatest concern was that Santa would find him in our temporary accommodation. He did…Santa has an intelligence system that is the envy of NSA & GCHQ.
What characterised the community response at that time was that this was an unfortunate, but inevitable consequence of living in a flood plain. There was a quiet acceptance and everyone got on with dealing with the aftermath and generally the insurance companies did their job.
Things have changed in the past 14 years.
Firstly, a lot of people who did not think they would be affected are affected, including those in the Thames catchment and wider South East who do not normally expect to be at the mercy of the elements. Secondly, the repeated effects on communities such as those in the Somerset Levels are having a cumulative effect on their ability to cope. Thirdly, the insurance companies have considerably hardened their attitudes since 2000 and many people no longer have cover or have huge excesses, that make claims prohibitive.
This has led to a rather fevered “something must be done” atmosphere and in these days of wild claims and desperate communities and even more desperate politicians, people are reaching for whatever seems like it might be an answer.
Over the past few weeks this has led to clarion calls for wide scale dredging. As Richard Benyon points out in his thoughtful piece in the Guardian, if you were to follow the logic of the calls being made in Somerset, then 1/4 of GDP would need to be allocated to dredging alone. Clearly bonkers. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/13/beware-politicians-pretending-armchair-hydrologists?CMP=twt_gu.
Dredging is not the silver bullet answer some seem to believe it can be. It will make a small difference in some areas, but in these sort of flood events, the river channel is such a small proportion of the overall flood volume, that the difference it can make during these events is negligible. In some cases it will make things worse, getting water off farm land and into downstream communities more quickly. The intention of flood defence is to use flood plains to hold water until it can be safely channeled through urban areas and other bottle necks; providing the best protection for life and property. Dredging is of most benefit to farmers, as it helps get water of farm land more quickly, but this can be to the disadvantage of rural and urban areas downstream; you then have the hoary question of who controls the pumps.
Flood defence planning is really complex and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I do have some personal knowledge from land management projects in the Severn catchment. What that taught me is that any solution needs to be catchment wide and needs to balance social, economic and environmental interests. Mark Avery http://networkedblogs.com/TSaRl raises another interesting notion about the current floods response, i.e., that local people can come up with the solution. Sadly, there is no silver bullet here either, the big society is simply not big enough – flood planning requires catchment wide planning, at least; it requires enormous technical resources and huge investment. Flood defence is simply not an area where local community-based solutions can be relied upon. This isn’t because community-led solutions are inherently bad; its just that what is needed here requires significant technical expertise, considerable public funds and has interconnected effects over wide areas.
Our current flood defences have evolved over millennia and they are carefully calibrated on all those centuries of experience and great technical expertise. The weather is changing and the defences and our management of them will need to be re-evaluated to ensure they remain fit for purpose.
One last point and perhaps the issue that has left me with the worst taste in my mouth in this whole situation. Beware the vested interests and piggy-backing in this debate. Beware the politician (who hates expert opinion) who says he listened to experts too much. There is also no logical or moral link between the UK’s International Aid budget and this domestic crisis other than that made by politicians and media channels who wish to see the aid budget reduced. As the Prime Minister has said, we are a rich country and our aid budget is one of the few things we do for those who are in desperate need. If the question is Somerset or Syria, I know where my vote would go – where it is a matter of life and death. But this is a false choice – there is no more of a link between flood defence and International Aid than there is with Trident missiles, schools or hospitals.
So, once there is more light than heat in this debate, it will certainly be time to look again at the Coalition Government’s and Environment Agency’s plans for the UK’s flood defence; and perhaps it will be time for an easing of austerity in that area. We should also ensure planning is on a sufficient scale, i.e., catchment wide and that communities are properly consulted.
My heart goes out to those who are currently dealing with the effects of flooding and it turns your life upside down, I personally have done my bit to donate support to those affected by the floods. However, we can only look at solutions properly once the politicians are out of their waders and back around tables, listening properly to the expert and local opinion and giving the appropriate agencies the tools to ensure communities are protected for the long term. Maybe it’s also time to look at statutory intervention in the flood insurance market. In the meantime, please give generously to the flood recovery appeals and give these suffering communities our moral and practical support; and I hope you are all back home by Christmas.