This column usually focuses on living nature, but the non-living natural world is just as important and at times very violent. Newsrooms beam every earthquake, volcanic eruption, big storm and major flood into our homes. For most of my life these have mainly happened in other countries, but now, as far as major floods are concerned, incidents are increasing in the UK.
Two years ago it was Somerset, this month it was Cumbria. The reaction was the same in both cases: calls to spend more on engineered flood defences and dredging. This ‘end of pipe’ approach is what has got us where we are today. To make matters worse the Prime Minister says that more must be done, the Government will act. This is a classic example of double-speak: the Government is systematically taking apart the department (Defra) and its agencies, such as the Environment Agency, which plays a key role in flood defence.
The floods are no surprise, scientists have been predicting such events for a generation because of global warming. They have also told us what some of the causes of this are, including the human activities of burning fossil fuels, deforestation and soil degradation. The irony of the Cumbria floods was that they coincided with the international Paris Climate Change Conference and almost no journalists made the connection. Neither did anyone mention the recent withdrawal of renewable energy subsidies and the simultaneous increase in those for fossil fuels.
As for flood defences yes, we do need more, but not just walls and barriers. Investment in catchment management is needed. Rainwater needs to be held back and its flow slowed down. Rivers should be restored to their natural forms, with meanders and water meadows, sheep should be moved off the bare hills and replaced with trees, recreating the natural vegetation that was once there. This will soak up much of the water. Farmers should be paid a tree subsidy in place of their sheep subsidy.
The big weakness of current approaches to flooding is that, by moving the water on as quickly as possible, we are doing the opposite of what is needed. We send it straight to the next town or village. We know enough and are clever enough to do better. What we seem to lack is the will to do so.