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Posted on January 17, 2014 in Life, the Universe and Everything by Jay7 Comments »

Floods-1

The flooding we know about. The old, old story? Why, it’s simply the one about Governments. The one about how their right hand has no clue what their left hand is doing. About how promises evaporate along with the common sense once a politician is elected. The one where ‘lesson must be learned’ after every disaster, but somehow never are.

So what did I find out the other day? Our beloved leaders seem consistently to have followed policies which contribute to the current flooding crisis in the UK.

According to what I have been reading, what they have done – and are still doing – is this:

They encourage farmers in hilly areas to denude their land. There is actually a sizeable grant which they can apply for and which they can only have if they rip out all ‘surplus vegetation’ which includes trees.

At the same time, they have ceased the tree-planting grants and are about to close that department entirely. Not to mention that while all this is going on up there, there are allowing more and more building on flood plains down below.

Does all this sound crazy to you? Yep, me too. What they are effectively doing is paying millions of pounds in creating a problem, which they then spend millions of pounds trying to patch up.

Floods-3

An enlightened group of farmers, meanwhile, took a long hard look at what they could do to improve their lot, and they began planting trees along the contours of the hills on their land. When there was a flash flood on one farm, it was clearly seen to stop at the line of trees and disappear quite quickly. You see, tree roots are wonderfully adept at directing the water where they need it: downwards into the soil, where it is held and can be released and absorbed slowly. Trees also help the process by evaporating the water through their leaves. One open-minded bit of Government research estimated that if all the farmers in the area reforested only 5% of their land, flooding below would be reduced by a whopping 29%. And what are the government doing? Sitting on their hands as far as anyone can see! So … another example of the right hand never knowing what the left is doing, don’t you think?

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that if a farmer chooses to follow the Pontbren model, he must fund the trees and the planting himself, and forfeit the government grant to which he would otherwise be entitled. Hill farmers are not rich people, so it’s unlikely that this 29% reduction in flooding is going to be achieved without some help.

The Woodland Trust has suggested that ‘if the lessons are heeded’ from this venture, it could change the face of hill-farming in Wales for the better. Remember up at the top there, where ‘lessons must be learned’ after every disaster, but never are? It all sounds depressingly familiar. By the way, I am amazed that the Woodland Trust called the result of the Pontbren work ‘unexpected’. Aren’t they exactly the people who should know this would happen?

Now. I’m not talking about storm surges or rising sea levels (obviously) which are both present-day threats to our coastal regions. I’m talking about foreseeable, preventable flooding of residential areas near water-courses. The water-course in question in the above story is the Severn; our biggest and arguably our most dangerous river. It handles a whole lot of water, and I suppose people who know little about the way our water cycle works in and around the Severn could be forgiven for assuming it can handle anything we throw at it, simply because it is so big. Clearly, it cannot. Neither can the Thames, the Tyne, the Wear, the Blackwater, the Nene, the Great Ouse, or any one of the large handful of Avons that we seem to have dotted about our collective person. None of them are limitless.

Floods-2

I don’t happen to live in an area threatened greatly by overflowing rivers, thanks to the Dutch engineers of the 18th century who drained the fens with a very efficient system of dykes. However, not even these dykes have a limitless capacity, as has been seen in recent years – notably when torrential rains affected the Midlands and someone 50 miles or so upstream (allegedly) mismanaged the floodgates causing a surge of water to rush downstream which drowned large areas of low-lying ground, including parts of my city. Such disasters are caused by a combination of nature and human error and one has be philosophical.

But let’s be frank. Our government knows the theory. They have spent (and probably continue to spend) large amounts of money funding scientist in the tropics who learn about applied hydrology and advise other countries how to protect hillside forests to prevent flooding down in the plains. They know, people, and yet they are not applying their knowledge to our own country, for the benefit of the very people who have paid for those studies.

This ongoing, insanely stupid bungling by our ‘Beloved Leaders’ makes me very angry indeed. Why aren’t more people angry? Probably because it’s all kept vewy vewy qwiet and hardly anyone knows about it. I’m not going to touch upon the mismanagement of our rivers and waterways in terms of dredging/not dredging, and all the ‘tidying’ which has been undertaken over the years, only serving to contribute to the problem. It’s such a complex subject that I don’t pretend to understand it well enough. But as any fule kno (as dear old Nigel Molesworth was apt to say), if you denude the hills, rain is going to slide off them more easily and run downhill very fast, and it all has to go somewhere.

In New Zealand they know about water management. They know how to conserve water and they know how to control it, and there are vast tracts of high ground designated as ‘water conservation areas’. In practical terms, this means that in areas likely to have problems with flooding, or where they need to trap water for public use, they make damn sure to keep their hills forested because they know that this means the water does not simply run off the top of the soil, but sinks in. They also have high ‘tussock country’ (consisting of very tall clumps of grasses) which catches rainwater beautifully and makes it easier to conserve rainwater, giving it time to fill reservoirs. This also helps to prevent flooding down below, if I understand it correctly.

This is a photo I took of the Waitakere Dam in New Zealand in 1988. See all the trees?

WaitakereDam-NZ-1

To quote a document called ‘Forestry and Water Yield: the New Zealand example‘ which was discussing the usefulness of tussock grassland over forests: “The primary mechanism by which tall vegetation affects water balance is through evaporation of intercepted rainfall, thereby reducing the amount of water available for run-off and stream flow”.

Doesn’t that sound like a good thing above areas prone to flooding? It does to me! I’m sure any knowledgeable Kiwis out there will correct me if I’m wrong. And our government is encouraging the eradication of trees on our own hillsides.

Let’s do something about it. Let’s all shout very loudly and ask them what the fuck they are up to. Let’s try to stop them wasting our money on tail-chasing and give the hill farmers back their tree-planting grants while safeguarding the ‘One Farm’ grant they should also be entitled to. Let’s protect those homes at the bottom of the hilly areas – and the land further down the rivers – by reducing the load on the capacity of those rivers.

I feel a letter to my MP coming on. How about you?

Bench

We were in town the other day, and as on so many other occasions, we stood, indecisively, and wondered if there was anything else we had to do before we could give up and go home.

I thought for a minute.

‘Wilkinsons!’ I said. ‘I need more mealworms!’*

We looked up the street towards that distant emporium of wonders.

Me: ‘Do you want to come with me, or take this stuff to the car and meet me in Waitrose?’

OH: ‘I don’t mind coming with you. Providing you’re not in there for ages, that is?’

I assured him I only wanted mealworms, so off we set. When we arrived, OH looked a little disconsolately at the big glass doors and the heaving masses inside them, and then at a metal bench on the pavement outside. It was damp, and looked distinctly greasy.

‘If it was cleaner – and if it was warmer – I’d sit out here and wait for you’, he said.

He trailed behind me as I went inside. I located the mealworms fairly quickly, but then, it has to be said, I got a bit caught up in all the random stuff they have in there: strange, bizarre stuff, a lot of it. Lurid place mats, and doorstops shaped like foxes and huge wooden ampersands. I mean, who buys all this crap, I wondered, even as I secretly thought some of it looked kind of fun…

OH kept disappearing and reappearing. He looked tired and dispirited. I spotted a bench, and pointed to it: a clean one, inside the shop on the far side of the tills, no doubt put there for weary husbands to prevent them dragging their wives off home without spending any money. His face lit up and off he went, sinking onto it gratefully to wait for me.

When I had finished marvelling at all the stuff (and very nearly buying some of it), I took my mealworms to the till, paid for them, and walked up to OH on his bench. I thought I’d cheer him up a bit.

‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’ I asked, quietly, bending down to him solicitously. ‘Would you like to come home with me?’

A couple of people sneaked sideways glances, but I ignored them.

OH looked up at me, suspicious but hopeful. ‘You do look nice,’ he said. ‘I dunno. Got any bourbons?’

‘No’, I said.

‘Not coming with you if you haven’t got any bourbons,’ he said, sulkily.

‘OK, suit yourself’, I said, and walked off.

I was almost out of the door before he caught up with me.

‘I thought you wanted bourbons!’ I asked, a touch frostily as we stepped out into the equally frosty air.

He grinned. ‘I thought I might persuade you to buy some!’

I laughed, and we proceeded the road, happy in the knowledge that some very confused people were probably watching us from Wilkinsons, convinced I’d picked up a strange, homeless person and walked off with him.

We had turned the corner towards the shopping centre and car park, when OH clutched at me.

‘Look at that bus!’ he said

I looked. It was going to Southend. ‘Yes?’ I asked.

‘Southend via Manchester!’ he said. ‘Do they actually know where either of those places are? You might as well say ‘London via Leeds!’

‘That is rather strange’ I said, puzzled. I opened my mouth to speak, but he got there first.

‘Got any bourbons?’ he asked, hopefully.

‘I have no bourbons’. I replied. ‘Perhaps you should go back to Wilkinsons. There’s a nice bench there, inside, out of the cold’.

We giggled, and went to Waitrose and did our shopping, and we went home, and I cooked some dinner. We watched an old episode of Boston Legal, and when it had finished, OH turned to me and said:

‘I could do with a bourbon or two right now’.

I sighed.

‘Sorry’ I replied. ‘I still don’t have any bourbons’.

There was a pause.

‘Oh, well, never mind’, he said. ‘This chair’s a lot more comfortable than that bench, anyway’.

It’s lovely to be able to make each other laugh and play silly games over nothing, don’t you think? But I often wonder; are we really peculiar, or do other people do this kind of thing, too?

And if they did, would they admit it?

* Wilkinson’s have the cheapest mealworms in town. We have so many ravenous starlings here that we get through buckets of the things during the winter. If I put enough out, the other birds get a fighting chance to pick up one or two.

WWWTP

Go on, take a good look.

This is a machine called a Tefal Quick Cup. It is a hot/cold water dispenser with a filter in the water reservoir, so no matter if you want a cup of tea or a mouthful of room temperature water, you can have one free of nasties such as the chloramine they use round here to disinfect the water supply.

I started using this after we returned from Italy, where my acid reflux had been SO much better than it normally is in England. I figured that one of the things which was different was the water supply, and in fact, I believe it has helped a lot. Certainly, when the first filter ran out on this thing, I began tasting acid again.

Anyway. Here’s how it works: you stick a mug under the tap and press a button, upon which it will dispense a measured amount of water and stop automatically. Red for hot, black for cold. Simple, right? And I did that, using the mug you see in the photo, but then I walked off and did something else while it was dispensing.

Look carefully at that mug, and you will see that it is upside down.

I came back to find no hot water in the mug at all … but plenty swimming around on the worksurface!

D’Uh!!

Did you spot that? Because at the time I clearly didn’t.

RDB-7

I started this post several weeks ago, but I got tied up with all kinds of stuff.  Among other things, there was Christmas, when I volunteered myself for the job of selling Christmas cards for Brambleberry Greyhounds on eBay, and running their Christmas auction as well as getting ready for the family celebrations. Now I’m trying to sort out the house and get rid of … stuff. Stuff I don’t need, and which is getting in the way.

Anyway.  Being so very disorganised that sometimes I found myself in supermarkets two or three days in a row, having failed to remember something important, and when you spend half your week in a supermarket you start to notice things.  Like this:

RDB-6

Sorry it’s so blurry, but this is the accumulated dirt on the side rails of a check-out belt in one of our local Sainsbury’s.  I snapped it sneakily on my phone. I don’t think photographing stuff in a supermarket is an offence, as such, but I always feel guilty when I do it, as if the security guard is going to slap me in handcuffs or something. Anyway. There it was, and I snapped it.

You see, I was quite appalled, because this is a food store, and they expect me to put my food down on that thing!  It clearly hasn’t been cleaned properly for months! If ever.

Not to single out one supermarket over another, this is a check-out in a Morrison’s store.

RDB-4

Nameless white powder, both on the end (where you might place your shopping while you’re loading the belt) and on the belt itself.  Now, in all probability it’s flour, but this supermarket also sells weedkillers, flea powders, and harsh chemical cleaning agents.   Want to put your bread or your fruit down on it now and hope that it’s flour?

This belt also had some un-named stickiness inches from an unwrapped pineapple belonging to the lady in front of me.   I’m so glad there’s no way to eat pineapple without peeling it.

‘What’s the big problem?’ I hear some of you ask, ‘they’re all like that!’  Well, they shouldn’t be. And there are two problems that I can think of off the top of my head.

If the un-named stickiness is leakage from, say, a pack of raw chicken then it could potentially contain food poisoning bacteria, like salmonella or E coli. It’s frighteningly easy to contaminate food with bugs like that.  Babies and old people are particularly vulnerable, and hey – I’M nearly an old person!

RDB-1

I’m not a clean-freak.  Anyone who has seen the inside of my house will confirm that, but you might have to wait for them to stop laughing first.  I am also well aware of the fact that overly zealous cleaning and too much attention to hygiene may get you nothing but a compromised immune system, but there are limits.  And quite frankly I’m kind of stunned that in these days of accountability and litigation our food shops are paying so little attention to a clear health hazard.

The second problem is that huge numbers of people, including me, are allergic to certain foods.   This is something that seriously worries me.  Supposing that the package which leaked all over the belt contained white fish like cod, or plaice, and I put my loaf of bread down in that little puddle – bread from the bakery, I mean, not the sort wrapped in plastic. When I eat the bread I’m quite possibly going to suffer a severe allergic reaction.  Guess what? I don’t want to!

Maybe the ‘un-named stickiness’ was leakage from a tahini jar. They always have spare oil on the top, and always seem to leak if you lay them down on their sides and yes, there are some people who are severely allergic to sesame. 

RDB-2

Allergies are a growing problem.  Some children are so allergic to peanuts that nobody in the whole school is allowed to bring anything in their packed lunch which contains peanuts in any shape or form, because merely touching a surface where peanuts have rested is enough to trigger a reaction – poor little devils – and children are notoriously bad at keeping their sticky little fingers to themselves.

So. I find it hard to understand how supermarkets can get away with this kind of sloppy management.  Is it going to take a clear and attributable case of food poisoning or anaphylactic shock? Sometimes I really don’t like people much, selfish and lazy bastards that most of us are.

I actually complained last time I was in Sainsbury’s because the belt was so bad that we had to leave gaps in the belt where we quite literally refused to put any of our shopping because it was so dirty. ‘Wow, your belt is dirty!’ I said. But the young lady on the checkout said nothing. I tried again.

‘How often do these belts get cleaned?’ I asked, looking her in the eye.

She looked offended and told me they got cleaned every day. She didn’t, however, offer to clean it there and then. She just worked around the gunk.

Cleanliness can be achieved, because not all supermarkets are like it. I have no great fondness for Tesco, but the last time I was in one, I couldn’t help but notice that the checkout belt was nigh on spotless. It was incredibly clean! It nearly blinded me with it’s pristine sparkliness and clean black rubber. I took a peek at the checkout next door. Yep, just as clean and unblemished by soap powder spills or un-named stickiness. And no clumps of ancient dirt in the runners, either.

I just might have to re-think where I do my shopping. It’s either that, or bring along my own shopping trolley and checkout belt cleaning kit!