Treading flood water

As swathes of the UK are once more submerged beneath rising flood waters, fingers are again brandished at politicians and the inadequate response to the flooding. But no amount of flood barrier can resist the rising tide of the climate crisis. Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack says we need to take a more ecologically conscious approach to flood prevention, that tackles the climate emergency and restores natural flood defences.

Flood warning sign
Flood warning sign
Amelia Womack

With the devastation of Storm Dennis coming hot on the heels of Storm Ciara, this is probably the worst spate of flooding in living memory for most people affected. And this comes just a few months after the extensive flooding of November 2019, which put half the country underwater.

Back then, our mop-haired PM pushed a mop around for what looked to be the first time in his life. This time, he’s not even bothering to pretend he cares. While he’s game for a political stunt like lugging the whole cabinet to meet in the ‘north of England’, he won't convene a COBRA meeting for what is clearly a serious national crisis affecting many of his newly won voters. 

As easy as it is to put the boot into Johnson for failing to care about ordinary people, the reality is, the problem is much more widespread. Swathes of our entire political class and media fail to grasp the true nature of the problem, which isn’t really about sandbags, concrete and barriers. This disaster goes to the heart of our climate and ecological crises.

First of all, we need to be honest: this is climate change. There can be no more fear of sticking our heads above the parapet, and worrying about conflating weather with climate. One degree of warming means that extreme weather events are more likely to happen, and they’re certain to be worse when they do happen. 

We know that current levels of climate change made Storm Desmond of 2015 40 per cent more likely, and just this week Dr Michael Byrne – a climate lecturer at the University of St Andrews – said that when heavy rain events come they “bring more rain, 100 per cent for certain, because of climate change” as every degree of warming puts seven per cent more rain in the atmosphere.

Secondly, we need to completely rethink our stewardship of the natural world. For too long we’ve let wealthy landowners strip the uplands, we’ve unnecessarily dredged rivers, and we’ve built on flood plains. All of this sends water barreling down towards settlements with nowhere else to go, and we wonder why we’re ankle deep in our living rooms. 

We need to rewild our countryside to ensure that water is slowed and stored across a whole catchment area, rather than letting it pile up at built flood defences at the bottom of our gardens. 

A small start would be to reintroduce beavers as a native species across England and Wales. This month, an extensive study of beaver reintroduction found that beavers have a positive effect on the reduction of flooding and drought. It is thought that beavers at large in Yorkshire can be thanked for alleviating flooding during Storm Dennis, and we can imitate these natural flood management systems through better land stewardship, as we see in places like Stroud. 

This is not the imaginative thinking that we see at the moment. Quite the opposite. Just this week, we’ve learned that 11,000 new homes are slated to be built on flood plains, in spite of the head of the Environment Agency explicitly warning against this. In the midst of some of the worst flooding events in living memory, we appear to have learned nothing.

People always ask me what can be done, while entire towns are underwater. The answer is that we should already have done it – between extreme weather events, not while communities are scrambling to survive. 

Just because the floodwaters are going down doesn’t mean that the climate emergency is going away. We can’t just focus on floods when there’s a photo opportunity for a politician. It’s time to get real about what effective action looks like. We can keep pouring concrete and building barriers, but the water will always find a way over as extreme weather gets worse and worse. 

What we need is better land management in the uplands, rewilding our countryside to make our environment more absorbent and resilient. We need mass tree planting, reintroduction of species like beavers, an end to grouse moor shooting and more wetlands built into urban planning. We need to massively prioritise natural flood management, with engineered flood defences as a final option.

Above all else, we need to decarbonise by 2030, taking real climate action that stops our winters getting wetter and wetter. There’s no doubt about it any longer – this is climate change, and it’s not just at our door, it’s in our living rooms. Only by truly facing up to the scale of the climate emergency can we stay on dry land.