Contributor: Will Bugler
The winter weather was quite something wasn’t it? Our newspapers and TV channels were saturated with images of the kind that would have made biblical people stop mocking Noah. Reporter after reporter cursed their career choice as they were handed their waders and told to go out into the tempest and give the latest on the flood levels.
One report that stuck in my mind was one where a BBC reporter was interviewing Dave Throup, Environment Agency Manager for Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The reporter asked him to explain how bad the wind and rain was. Before he could answer, a large tree was blown into the raging torrent just meters away. “Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed as the Ash was swept downstream. Summed it up beautifuly.
As well as providing another example of why 24hr rolling news really is an awful idea, the floods brought untold misery to many across the south of England – just as they did in the North 7 years ago. Pictures of a newly-built, million-pound house sitting on a small patch of grass in the middle of the vast lake where Somerset used to be, were some of the more startling of an array of startling images that adorned the front pages.
One conclusion that seemed to be accepted by almost everyone was that the owner’s plight was symptomatic of under-investment in flood risk management. But looking a little closer it became clear that what was lacking was a common understanding of what ‘flood risk management’ is.
From a socio-ecological resilience (resilience in systems where society and the environment interact) perspective, river basin management is a textbook example of how environmental systems can be managed to reduce risk. This approach is a far cry from that displayed by the media, the majority of the people affected, and many politicians, which was to concentrate almost entirely on ‘last line of defence’ flood protection infrastructure – by which I mean flood defences close to people’s property. The only people who genuinely sounded like they knew what they were talking about were cast as the villains of the hour… the Environment Agency.
Calls of ‘DREDGE! DREDGE!’ were almost universally adopted – an understandable reaction from those suffering the devastation of a flooded home. However, far from being a panacea, dredging is an effective solution only in the right circumstances and will produce a very specific effect: It moves water down river channels more quickly. This may be a good thing, if for example the river has a clear run to the sea, it could relieve some of the upstream flooding. However if the river runs through a major city, perhaps sending a torrent of fast flowing floodwater downstream would be less appropriate. A resilience approach ensures that flood risk is understood as something to be managed. It cannot be prevented. Risk is inevitable.
That the Somerset Levels flooded came as no surprise. One etymological explanation for the county’s name is a derivation of the Anglo-Saxon Sumorseate, or ‘summer farmstead’. Winter flooding made farming impossible, but farmers would capitalise on the fertile floodplain in the summer. The extent of the flooding this year, however, has been extreme. In the south of England the six weeks up to the end of January saw the highest rainfall levels on record.
The extreme weather is in line with climate change predictions, which indicate that weather patterns will become more unpredictable and extreme in Northern Europe and that rainfall is likely to fall in more intense bursts. Flood risk for the UK has been acknowledged as one of the greatest climate risks by the government’s own Climate Change Risk Assessment, released by Defra in 2012. The Risk Assessment concluded that “Increased damage by from flooding, that could cost up to £12 billion by 2080”.
Rainfall is just part of the picture
To suggest that rainfall intensity alone caused such widespread flooding would be disingenuous. The map below shows rainfall data from the UK Met Office for January 2014. It shows that the catchment around the Somerset Levels, while experiencing considerable rainfall, actually saw less rain than in the hills of the Taff and Ely catchment, on the other side of the Bristol Chanel.
Each catchment will, of course, react in different ways to rainfall events, but the Taff and Ely catchment has a higher river density than the Somerset Levels; and in the words of the Environment Agency’s own risk management strategy for the Taff and Ely: “Upland areas are steep, mountainous and typically respond rapidly to rainfall.”
You might expect then, that the low lying, coastal areas of the Taff and Ely catchment to look like the Somerset Levels or at least be experiencing some minor flood alerts. You would be wrong. There were no flood alerts issued in the Taff and Ely catchment whatsoever, while the Levels had umpteen severe warnings in place for weeks.
So what is the explanation? The rivers in the Taff and Ely catchment have certainly not had a flotilla of dredgers chugging away for the past decade. So why have the Levels experienced such bad flooding?
AD43: the roots of the floods.
The rough heathland of the Mendip Hills in the higher reaches of the Somerset Levels catchment is a protected area. Conserving the natural landscape of bracken, heather and tussock has been a priority, protecting the beauty of this increasingly rare landscape. Except the landscape is not exactly natural at all: once upon a time the Mendips were almost entirely forested.
In AD43 the Romans invaded and settled in the Levels, deforesting the hill slopes for fuel and building materials. The remaining scrub was then cleared by burning or ‘swaling’ as it was called. Remarkably, swaling is still practiced today in the area, as part of the continued effort to maintain the heathland landscape. Much of the other high hill slopes are now put over to grazing, with sheep keep vegetation down to a minimum. Devoid of forest cover, the hill slopes are now managed, as if by design, to cause flooding.
The map (above) from the UK Forestry Commission, shows that Somerset has regained little of its woodland since the Roman times. It also shows that the Taff and Ely basin has retained at least some of its hill forest. Tree cover on hill slopes is one effective measure that can help reduce flooding in other parts of a catchment. Trees intercept rain as it falls and as a study (recently referenced in an article by George Monbiot for The Guardian) in the journal Hydrological Processes points out water has been found to sinks into the soil under the trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under the grass.
Forest cover in the UK, according to the Forestry Commission, stands at just 12%. The EU average sands and 37%, making the UK one of the least densely forested nations anywhere in the world. It is clear that restoring the nations’ forests will be crucial to help increase resilience to flood risk.
Tree planting in upland areas of the catchment is just one measure of reducing the risk to property. But it is a good example of an effective tool that is employed not at the point of flood, but in the upper reaches of the river basin. It shows that flood risk is systemic and should be managed as such.
Within the last year the coalition government has: relaxed planning restrictions to make it easier for home owners to extend their homes reducing urban garden cover; made it easier for developers to build on green belt land; announced plans to scrap building standards relating to renewable energy; and torn up 80,000 pages of environmental regulation. To then announce measures to increase flood defence spending is folly.
If policy measures that protect the environment continue to be seen simply as measures to protect the lesser-spotted something-or-other or as an economic burden then we may very well find ourselves to be up on the Levels without a paddle.
Politicians must examine policy frameworks governing land-use, planning, agricultural practices, and future development on floodplains in a holistic way if they are to ever hope to achieve the ultimate goal: a reduction in the cost to businesses and in the misery of households.
Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.