Is rural land management the problem or the solution to flooding in our towns and cities?
Paul Woodcock from the Environment Agency and Joe Morris from Cranfield University respond. Tell us what YOU think – post your comments at the bottom of the page.
Paul Woodcock, Regional Director for the Anglian Region of the Environment Agency
I once lived in a four hundred year old cottage near a tributary of the river Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire. The adjacent brook was decidedly flashy – one day, a ferocious torrent, the next a gentle steam. On Good Friday in 1998, after a day of heavy rain, the brook rose steadily to a peak level resulting in a metre deep flood through the house. The consequences were: a £60,000 bill, fortuitously covered by a very helpful insurance company, the family spending nine months in various rented properties, while the house dried out and was repaired, and a legacy of fear about the next storm.
So, what’s changed? Surely our predecessors didn’t build our cottage on land prone to flooding. More likely the character of the brook has changed. I suspect it is because increasingly efficient agriculture has removed the “sponge”. The dampening effects of a biodiverse catchment, able to hold and gradually release its burden of water, have been reduced. Efficient field drainage systems might improve agrarian productivity but at what cost, in flood damages, and to the environment? Do agricultural economic gains outweigh the cost of flood defences and the loss of species? There’s the human cost too. Flood risk and poor health appear linked. There are no easy answers but there are opportunities. What incentivisation could replace the “sponge” in rural land use? What benefits might flow from natural solutions to water management, be they economic, environmental or social? How does society gear itself to make the change? A climate change-proofed tool kit aimed at reducing flood risk through the right land uses appears to be a prize worth striving for.
We now live in a house on one of the very few hills Cambridgeshire can offer, but what hope can we extend to those still living with floods?
‘Food from our Own Resources’ dominated rural policy in post war Britain. As part of this, many floodplain and coastal areas were defended against flooding and ‘reclaimed’ for agriculture, using public funds. Now, changing priorities in the countryside, concerns about climate change and recent flooding of towns have led to us re-thinking our ideas about land management and policies for floodplains.
The 2007 summer events show how flooding has serious and often long-term consequences for people, communities and livelihoods, in both town and country. It reminds us to critically review decisions to build in floodplains. It also raises questions about how we might manage land in the wider, rural catchment to alleviate flood risk. This could, for example, involve actions to control runoff and retain storm water on farm land, temporarily “disconnecting” its flow from the main river system.
The 2007 floods demonstrated how rural floodplains can provide storage for flood waters, helping to alleviate flooding in urban areas where the resultant damage is much greater. Indeed, the purposeful storage of flood water in this way offers much scope for integrating multiple objectives of flood management, farming, biodiversity, and farmers might welcome the opportunity to earn income from such schemes.
But we have to remember that exposing rural areas to more frequent flooding could also have major negative implications for rural residents and businesses. There is a danger that policies such as Defra’s ‘Making Space for Water’ regard ‘sparse’ rural areas as unworthy of protection, to be ‘sacrificed’ to help protect the built environment. This could create a Cinderella effect, whereby flood risk policies inadequately consider the needs and vulnerabilities of rural communities. They become a neglected, and indeed exploited, poor relation as a result.
To complicate matters further, recent unprecedented rises in food and energy prices remind us of the strategic issues that previously justified public investment in flood risk management for food, and now possibly for bio-energy.