Messi is a pseudonym. He has worked on flood risk and water level management and nature conservation in the UK and overseas, advised farmers on agri-environment schemes and, most recently, has worked on community-led, nature-based tourism development in SE Europe and SE Asia.
The heat of the day was freshened somewhat by a cooling breeze as I lazed in my hammock, overlooking the vast, shimmering Tonle Sap lake from the veranda of my waterside guest house in Cambodia’s Siem Reap town.
Water levels here fluctuate wildly between wet and dry season, and the string of thriving guest houses and restaurants strung along the lake edge are either mounted on stilts above the high-water mark or are formed of floating platforms that gently rise and fall with the floods.
A fisherman’s boats chugs past, on its way out into the deeper lake waters to catch innumerable species of freshwater fish, to be sold by the riverside restaurants and street-side food stalls. Freshwater fish provide much of the protein for local people and are a favourite for tourists here.
Someway off, across the water-lily covered lake, a larger boat drifts past, laden with a group of visitors led by the Sam Veasna Centre, a Khmer nature tourism operation that takes groups of people to see one of the most spectacular gatherings of nesting ibises, egrets, cranes and storks in south-east Asia.
Behind my guest house, Asian water buffalos graze floodplain herbs and grasses in knee-deep water, as a farmer plants wet-season crops in an adjacent paddy.
I feel content in the middle of a bustling, thriving, wildlife-rich economy in one of south-east Asia’s most spectacular flood zones.
I sit up and fire-up the laptop, connect to the wifi, and check emails and then the news back home in the UK. The top news story includes a spectacular areal shot of what I initially assume to be the Lake District – a wonderful string of beautiful lakes shimmering in the early morning sun. But the headline tells a completely different story. It’s early 2013, and this is the Somerset Levels, inundated by flood water.
Whereas the whole economy of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap region is geared towards making the most of the annual waxing and waning of flood water, and whereas the Lake District is appreciated as one of the most beautiful landscapes in the UK, water in the Somerset Levels causes stress and economic turmoil. It’s unexpected, we’re not geared up for it.
Could we learn to expect it – and embrace it? Could we gear-up the Levels economy to make the most of flood water? Are there unrealised social and economic opportunities in a Somerset Lakes and Meres?
At the time of writing, most attention in the Somerset Levels and Moors appears geared towards the unachievable goal of stopping the floods. Dredge the River is the favoured mantra. Maybe the area is locked into this perpetual battle: never ending dredging; then, every so often, clear up the mess after the next, inevitable big flood overwhelms the system.
Or maybe we try this instead: devise a new vision of a thriving economy geared towards living with and exploiting a series of lakes and meres.
To gradually adapt towards this new future, I suggest that the UK government would need to do two things. First, establish a dedicated Somerset Water Stewardship Scheme, paying floodplain farmers and land owners for the benefits they provide to all of us by accepting water on their land. Second, the government should invest a few tens of millions to establish a community land trust, to acquire some of the most flood-prone, pump-drained areas. If water is allowed to settle out across such areas, to fluctuate with the seasons, new infrastructure can be installed around which new water-based businesses can develop – lake-side restaurants (selling freshwater fish dishes and buffalo burgers), guest houses, angling, canoeing, buffalo- and beaver-watching water safaris. Cranes have made a come-back here already: let’s re-introduce ospreys next, and white storks, and build businesses around the visitors such spectacular species will draw to the area. Costly in the short-term, but, potentially, an economic win for local people and the public purse longer-term.
Critically, though, existing homes and settlements must be protected from the floods. Having your home flooded is a horrible experience. Getting cut off by flood water – abandoned and with no way out – is terrifying and life-threatening. Low flood banks will need to protect settlements where these descend down onto land at risk of flooding. Some roads will need to be raised where they cross the floodplain, ensuring villagers and households have access to their homes and businesses whatever the depth of the flood. And it’s no good closing down the mainline railways across the Levels during big flood events: these should receive protection such that they continue to operate whatever the weather. And how about a new railway station in the middle of the Lakes and Meres to draw people in to the new Westcountry Lake District?
The people of the Somerset Levels may be unable to accept such a radical change in the way they use their home ground. But, seeing how we use other wet landscapes – the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads, and the North Norfolk and Suffolk coastal wetlands – they may wish to consider a broader range of options.