Can we tame the flood? – blog by Mark Lloyd
It’s been a fortnight that many will wish they could forget. Storms Ciara and Dennis hit the UK on successive weekends and thousands of homes, businesses and cars were submerged in filthy flood water. The impact on people affected must not be underestimated. It’s an invasion of the home that is in many ways worse than being burgled, and many will not be able to go home for months or years. When they do, they will always fear a repetition. Many towns and villages that were flooded in 2007 with what had been defined as “1 in 100 year” floods were hit again in 2020.
My house is called Brook Cottage and last weekend the brook in question became a muddy torrent within a few feet of my front door. The apparent powerlessness in the face of natural forces is what is so terrifying.
Newly appointed Secretary of State George Eustice bravely admitted this week that the government will ‘never be able to protect every single household’ from flooding. Climate change will make these named storms more intense and the Minister is telling the truth about the inevitability of homes flooding in the future.
However, we can reduce the risk and extent of flooding by managing water better in our landscape. Jeremy Purseglove wrote the 1st edition of his seminal book Taming the Flood nearly 35 years ago. It eloquently urged the government to reverse decades of work by engineers that had been designed to hurry water out to sea as fast as possible. He argued for the restoration of wetlands – 90% of which have been drained in the past century – and the blocking of field drains to allow water to stay on and in the land for longer. He argued for more trees to be planted – forest cover in the UK has stubbornly remained at 13% for decades, compared to a European average of 35% and Japan which has 67% (and a higher population density than the UK). Most emphatically, he argued that rivers should be reconnected with their floodplains, and allowed to meander once again.
Many of our rivers have been so heavily modified by engineers that they are now less than half their natural length. Put simply, this means that water falling on the headwaters reaches coastal towns at least twice as fast as it should. Building embankments to keep water in the normal river channel prevents it being stored in the floodplain and hurries it off downstream.
He was of course entirely right. By trying to stop the waterlogging and flooding of upstream areas, we have made downstream flooding far worse. However, his ideas of what we call Natural Flood Management are only now becoming more widely accepted as a viable national approach to flood management. Taming the Flood was republished in 2015 in response to the floods on the Somerset Levels in 2012, no doubt to counter the understandable, but ill-informed knee jerk calls for more dredging and embanking of rivers as a response.
Richard Benyon, who was Environment Minister at the time, told me that when he had replied to these calls by saying that dredging might have some minor local benefits, but that it would make flooding downstream in Bridgwater much worse, a local resident had responded by saying “you seem to be confusing me with someone who cares about Bridgwater.”
Happily, the media response to these floods has been more intelligent. More and more people are talking about Natural Flood Management as a key part of the solution. Rivers Trusts and others are carrying out natural flood management projects throughout the UK, and they need to be scaled up.
It won’t stop all flooding of homes and businesses, but if we slow the speed of water over and through the landscape, we can reduce the height of flood peaks, which can make all the difference to thousands of people. We can replace paved areas with soakaways, increase temporary storage in ponds, wetlands and leaky dams across tributaries. We can grow more hedges, scrub and trees in places where water rushes overland.
Most importantly, and with almost immediate results, we can manage our soil better in fields. Driving around the countryside in heavy rain, there are entirely different outflows from neighbouring fields on the same slope, with the same soil, but different land-uses. Fields left bare and compacted after the harvest of potatoes and maize have been generating great torrents of muddy water, in stark contrast to the more gentle stream of clear water issuing from the shaggy pasture next door. The land area given over to maize has increased from 8,000 to 183,000 hectares in recent years, with disastrous consequences for flood risk and pollution of rivers with soil washed off bare, compacted fields. Much of this has been driven by government subsidies of power generation from anaerobic digestor that have led to state-sponsored flooding and pollution. Overgrazing by stock can be just as bad as maize.
Just before Storm Dennis moved in, I dragged my family out on a wet weekend walk which took us through a valley dominated by sheep that had grazed and stomped the fields into a scene resembling the Somme. Animal waste piled up around the feeders was being washed down the impermeable slopes in rills and gullies and into a once-famed salmon river. Heaven knows what this looked like in the teeth of the storm on Saturday night.
Managed differently, this one farm could have held back millions of gallons of water that instead rushed down to the River Monnow which recently flooded many homes and closed the local pub at Skenfrith for months. From there it went on to contribute to the flood peak on the River Wye which has submerged parts of Monmouth in the past few days. That farmer is desperately trying to scratch a living by putting more and more sheep into his fields and he has my sympathy. The value to the people of Skenfrith and Monmouth of him being paid to manage water, and create space for wildlife to recover, would be immense.
As the Agriculture and Environment Bills get their second readings in parliament shortly, I hope George Eustice will consider how they might be used to help protect many more homes, even if we can’t save everyone from the misery of flooding.