Flooding… Yet Again. Why Are We Ignoring Some Simple Answers?

It’s not surprising that flooding is an issue much discussed hereabouts. I’ve blogged about it in 2013 and 2014, so hey, why not now too. It is a problem which will not go away. The Somerset levels regularly cop it, so I’m particularly sorry for the folk in Cumbria as I’ve seen the distress and damage it can cause at close hand.

It’s time the government started thinking in a much more intelligent way about flooding. I’m not always a fan of George Monbiot, but he has got this issue completely right.

There is no point trying to deal with the walls of water which are going to increasingly come rushing into built up areas. The people of Carlisle are witness to that. However tall you make your expensive defences they will be over topped by flooding.

Rather than try to block it, why isn’t the government doing something about controlling the water WHEN IT HITS THE GROUND? There are two glaring examples of how this can be done.

One of the features of the Lake District are its hill farms. The lot of an upland sheep farmer is harder than it has ever been, and without heavy subsidies from the taxpayer this way of life would die completely. Fell farming in the Lakes is a centuries old tradition and gives the area its particular look, which goes a long way to explaining opposition to giving it up.

Oddly though, given how unproductive it is, the numbers of sheep grazing our hills and mountains are an estimated 500% higher than they were before the First World War*. Researchers have connected what’s happening in these catchment areas with the situation downstream when a lot of rain falls. The water just whizzes off grazed and compacted upland pasture, which has lost its ability to absorb it.

Rather than paying for this to happen by way of subsidies, the good people of Carlisle out to be lobbying to get trees planted in their river catchments. Research in Wales has suggested that rainwater’s infiltration rate into the soil is 67 times higher under trees than under sheep pasture. Tree planting might change the landscape (to how it used to look) but the economic argument for it is becoming increasingly urgent.

The second area of policy change relates to green roofs – another pet subject of mine. Green roofs in urban areas do a fantastic job in holding water from extreme weather events. Heavy rain pours off hard surfaces and overwhelms traditional drainage systems. Our wildflower roof, on the other hand, holds 1000s of litres of rainfall. Make them a standard requirement for the hundreds of thousands of new homes we have to build.

Like all environmental issues, government should abandon short term populist solutions and adopt a science driven long term approach. Given the financial incentives, in these two instances it just might. We cannot afford to continue to deal with increasingly extreme weather events in the way we have been.

*Armsworth, Paul et al. (2009). A Landscape-Scale Analysis of the Sustainability of the Hill Farming Economy and Impact of Farm Production Decisions on Upland Landscapes and Biodiversity