Hell or High Water – Tackling flooding and drought together with nature

Catastrophic floods caused millions of pounds of damage and turned people’s lives upside down in summer ten years ago. Government has done a lot since then, but flooding continues to devastate our country.

This year, despite a relatively dry start, the summer has still seen flash flooding events. So, why do we still throw our arms up in disarray and throw money after a flood event, rather than invest properly in protection? Why aren’t we better prepared when we know the problem will recur? People still cry out ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me’, but if we look at the geographic distribution of the last ten years of floods, we see it can happen anywhere:

We had flooding in 2008 in Wales and the North East, flooding in Cornwall in 2010, flooding in Southern England in the winter of 2013 (despite the dry period from 2010-2012), severe floods in winter 2015 in Cumbria and, more recently, flooding in the South West in 2016.

We have destroyed our local environment’s ability to cope with rainfall. You can build all the hard defences you like, but it will always push water elsewhere. Allowing nature to slow the water down and soak it up from the source to the sea helps to reduce the amount of water filling and over filling our drains and rivers.

What about earlier this year when people were worried about too little water and hoping for rain? If our flood defences, rivers and drainage systems weren’t managed to get rid of water as quickly as possible and instead allowed water to move more slowly and percolate through soil, we would be able to rely less on irrigation and our groundwater would be more resilient to drier winters.

It makes sense to invest in natural interventions that improve flood resilience and water storage at the same time. Unfortunately, money is spent either on water resources or on flooding, not on both, and not enough work has been done on trials and evidence for integrated management.

There are a number of opportunities coming up where this can change.

  • Water companies are producing their business plans and could propose to investigate the impact of measures to mitigate flooding on water resource resilience. As water companies now have a duty towards company and environmental resilience, this surely makes sense as a win-win?
  • DEFRA is spending £15 million on natural flood management schemes, but has not allocated any money for monitoring. These schemes need to be monitored, not just for one year or three, but long-term to highlight the multiple benefits they provide, such as environmental resilience to dry weather events and water resources resilience.
  • DEFRA’s 25 year environment plan has the potential to not only help the environment adapt in the face of climate change, but to help our communities adapt by creating, enhancing, protecting and restoring our natural spaces, and clearly recognising the benefits that the environment brings us.

So, the Government and public utilities have a big role to play preventing future flooding. In the meantime, your community can make a difference in your area: better soil management in agriculture, local tree planting, house protection measures, sustainable drainage systems. They’re our homes and businesses, and we can work with nature to help protect them. So, let’s face the music and go dance in the rain.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust