FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter
Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons
By Phil Rothwell
As debate rages over the part climate change may be playing in Britain’s wet and stormy winter, one of the UK’s foremost experts on flood defence says we need to acknowledge reality – fast.
LONDON, 17 February - We are in danger of losing sight of some glaringly obvious truths about this exceptionally wet and stormy winter which much of the United Kingdom is enduring:
- Scientists should acknowledge that the current record-breaking weather, in the UK and globally, is being caused by a changing climate
- We don’t need party political bickering over flood funding, we need the right budget guaranteed for the future and agreed through political consensus
- We need a land use policy that reduces reliance on expensive flood engineering and moves toward natural catchment management, flood-friendly farming, and village, town and city location and design that reduces risk, not increases it
- We need a media and political framework that consigns climate change scepticism to the spike and the cutting room floor.
After the wettest and stormiest period in our history and following 2012, a year when we had both the most severe drought and wettest winter on record up until then, the almost complete failure of those in authority to acknowledge anything other than a faint link to climate change is beyond credibility and fundamentally and fatally damages a logical response.
Such a politically motivated head-in-the-sand attitude is severely damaging to any long-term approach to managing such events, let alone their cause. As I write this President Obama is visiting California to see the impact of the most testing drought in its history, New York is in the grip of deep snow and ice, and the Philippines once again see major flooding. The Somerset Levels and the floods in the Thames Valley are just a pimple on the surface of the world’s problems. But they need a bit more than a knee-jerk political gesture.
“Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them”
In the 2007 floods in the UK 10 times as many properties were affected, mainly in urban areas in the north. The limited and largely rural impacts of the current winter, appalling for a few, are in fact testimony to a successful flood risk management strategy.
Diverting resources to towns and cities, increasing flood protection to often ill-judged development, has proved a major success for the Environment Agency and the policy driver of investment which is targeted where most people live. Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them.
Many of the houses that have flooded are in rural locations in a flood plain best used to accommodate floods and relieve pressure downstream, thereby reducing even more major losses. We should be congratulating ourselves for a policy that is clearly working, protecting the most populated areas and using the sparsely-populated countryside for flood storage and mitigation.
Of course, whilst such a policy makes economic sense, in rural, social, personal and financial terms it can be a disaster. People are still affected, villages isolated, farmers managing reservoirs not wet meadows. This brings nothing but misery.
But the answer does not lie in more and bigger defences, or massive pumps. We should reforest the uplands, use different farming methods on upper catchment slopes, dam more upstream rivers and streams, create wet storage areas, end development in flood plains, and where there’s redevelopment do it in a way that absorbs and manages water through urban drainage systems and flood-sensitive design.
“Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning”
Far away from the knee-jerk throw-money-at-the-problem response in government, there is a truly sustainable approach to both floods and their causes. Combining national land use policy for climate change mitigation with better town and city protection and design is a valuable way forward, replacing high engineering costs with a flood-friendly approach to land management. But it’s not on the political agenda.
Instead we get a feast and famine approach to flood funding. Budget cuts are made in the hope that there will be no flood in the next few years. It happened after 1953, 1998, 2007, and now again in 2014. Cut the budgets until there is a flood and then restore them in the face of public and press criticism.
A decade ago a major Government study into climate change and flood risk, the Foresight Report, recommended a budget of £1 billion per annum, rising with inflation to keep pace with climate risk. The Pitt report in 2007 confirmed this scale of investment need. No Government has come close to matching these proposals, and the consequences become increasingly clear.
Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning to dictate a nation’s response to a threat of such scale. We certainly can do without Ministers so climate-sceptic that they delete any references to climate change in their briefs, or seek to blame the Environment Agency for flooding rural areas when that is the inevitable consequence of Government flood management policy.
We need realism about solutions. Most drainage engineers will tell you that dredging the Somerset rivers will make little impact on flooding, at most reducing the length of major floods by a few days.
“Scientists need to grasp the nettle, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change”
Ironically the rivers would have been dredged last year if, as Government policy requires, the local authorities could have found funds to match those offered by the Environment Agency at the time. Increasingly the authorities are being given greater responsibility for flood management – at a time when their funding is being cut and they cannot find the cash.
What we really need is for the major political parties to meet together and agree a 30-year approach to funding, governance and land use policy in the face of the greatest threat to our lives and our environment ever. You never know. It might look like joined-up policy in the face of high risk, and restore some credibility to the political process.
Scientists, too, need to grasp the nettle and urge the need for long-term planning, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change. The media should take a responsible science-driven approach and not feed the fire of misplaced scepticism or politically motivated ignorance.
The views peddled by eloquent sceptics such as Nigel Lawson have no place in a rational discussion. Such an approach is akin to denying there is any link between smoking and cancer, or obesity and heart disease. There is no place in a rational government for climate change denial.
The division in the country is fed by political uncertainty. The nation is under threat – and those charged with governing it, or in opposition, need to have that branded on their foreheads so they are forced to confront the reality every time they look in the mirror. – Climate News Network
Phil Rothwell was until December 2013 the Head of Flood Risk Policy at the UK Environment Agency.