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.
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.
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?
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?