George Monbiot pretty much nailed it on Monday – the approach to flooding in this country is woeful and relies on treating symptoms not the underlying illness.
There was a great rush of political comment about the floods in the north of England, not just in Cumbria, which seemed to focus on how much money had been spent on flood defences and whether it was enough, and which party had spent the most and spent it best. Fair enough, but only after a little calm reflection has it begun to emerge that tackling climate change and unsustainable land uses are part of flood defence too.
Just read John Ashton’s blistering attack on this government’s actions on climate change in yesterday’s Guardian to get a taste of how awful ‘the greenest government ever”s record is in this time when the world has come together to try to resolve the future, and present, impacts of climate change. And it’s not as though the impacts of climate change on flooding are a secret. We need to act now to reduce the likelihood of worse events in the future being caused by a changing climate, and to act now to reduce the impacts of inevitable climate change already built into the system by the uncooperative behaviour of carbon dioxide molecules remaining in the atmosphere for such a long time.
Yes it has rained a lot, an awful lot, and that is likely to cause problems but how we treat that water, wherever it falls, is important too. When a raindrop falls on the Duke of Westminster’s grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland it does not stay there. Under the influence of gravity it makes its way to the sea via, often, the River Wyre. If our raindrop stays in a blanket bog in the Forest of Bowland for a while then it is not yet adding to the spate down stream. If the grouse moor is drained and burned then we know, yes we know, that it will make its journey more quickly and meet up with many more water droplets who have also been hurried off the hills. There were high alerts, including of the highest level, along the River Wyre at the weekend.
If our raindrop falls in the Lake District, let us say in Matterdale, the setting for my book of the year The Shepherd’s Life, then its passage to the Solway via the Eden is strongly influenced by the land use of Matterdale and its surrounds. All those shepherds who just want to be left alone to get on with their traditional way of life (provided the subsidy cheques of townies keep coming), determine the speed with which each raindrop gets to Glenridding, Penrith, and Carlisle and cause the floods we saw on our TVs, or for some, out of their windows or into their houses. Lack of natural vegetation (like trees!) and compacted short grassland will not delay our raindrop very much and so it will quickly meet others heading off the hills into becks and rivers and flood an urban shop or restaurant miles away. How we treat the hills affects the floods in the valleys – they are connected just as this means that the shepherd and the shopkeeper are connected.
We know all this. We’ve known it for a long time.
A £50m flood fund is kindness at the short-term scale, and no doubt a great relief to those affected. But we need much more to deal with the causes of extreme weather events and the nature of the landscape in which they occur. Yes, we need hard defences such as walls (which never seem to be quite high enough) but we should invest much more in soft defences such as trees and bogs too.