What should be done about floods?

Submitted by AWL on 26 February, 2020 - 12:09 Author: Misha Zubrowski
Cartoon: Boris Johnson and the floods

As I write on 25 February, yet more “severe flood warnings” are being issued — currently in Shrewsbury and Ironbridge — indicating “danger to life” with suggestions that floods could reach “highest ever” levels for that area.

This follows a fortnight of deluges sweeping much of the UK, with exceptional rainfall bought by Storm Dennis and Storm Ciara.

What is causing these floods? Climate change? Bad “land management”? Austerity? Or a mix?

These storms come only three months after similar — record breaking — floods in the Midlands and Yorkshire; and nine months after the Peak Districts and Lincolnshire, too, were hit by dramatic floods.

Records of UK river flow generally date back about half a century, or slightly under. These consistently indicate increased flow, across the UK, and most significantly, increased peak flow. However, the longer term trends, from the few places with longer records, suggest that there had been some decrease of river flow and flooding before then, in largely undocumented decades.

River flow and flooding reflect longer term global and regional weather patterns and fluctuations, in the exact position and travel of storms, for example. Often it is not possible neatly to tag year-on-year changes with precise causes.

That said, a warmer atmosphere can hold (and release) more moisture, and climate change affects the global weather patterns and their variation, increasing climatic instability and storms. Pointing our finger at climate change over this or that flood or local trend may be difficult, and some places around the world are suffering droughts. But climate change has surely at least exacerbated recent increases in flooding.

Other problems figure.

Deforestation leads to soil degradation and erosion, so that soil can hold less water. In a river basin, this means that rainfall runs off and into rivers more quickly. River flow thus varies more sharply, more directly reflecting the rainfall. Degradation of moorland, concreting, compacting grassland with livestock, and draining of floodplains for construction, all have similar effects — on top of damaging biodiversity and other ecological harms.

The net result, without adequate planning and other steps taken, is more flooding. That would be true even without greater and more variable rainfall.

The need for better “upstream land management” is greater given that — however much we limit it — the climate emergency is happening, and will continue for some time to come. Steps to mitigate its worst effects are necessary, whilst also tackling its root causes: principally fossil capital.

Austerity, and Conservative pig-headedness, must take a share fair of the blame. The 2008 Pitt review, commissioned following the 2007 floods, stated:

“The scale of the problem is, as we know, likely to get worse. We are not sure whether last summer’s events were a direct result of climate change, but we do know that events of this kind are expected to become more frequent... climate change has the potential to cause even more extreme scenarios than were previously considered possible. The country must adapt to increasing flood risk.”

The New Labour government did act on the recommendations and increase funding on flood defences. That was cut sharply in 2011-13 as part of Tory-Lib Dem austerity.

We need adequate funding to deal with floods. And for more than just higher flood defences and high-tech systems for predicting where they may next strike. We need constructions of dams, overflow basins and diversion canals.

Most importantly in the medium term, we need greater collective, democratic planning: upstream land management as part of an integrated ecological rewilding programme. Programmes to plant and replant forests, to rewild land and re-establish flood plains, and even reintroducing dam-building beavers into rivers. These are all known to work. Agriculture should be planned with run-off in mind.

And, as fallback where necessary, we should plan to allow rivers to flood fields (easier to deal with) rather than flooding towns downstream.

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