Flooding - the inconvenient truth

07 January 2016 | Posted in Tony Whitbread , Wetland
Flooding - the inconvenient truth
flood / Robert Maynard

By Tony Whitbread

Chief Executive

“Flooding equals lack of river dredging” is the simplistic message often promoted by the media, sometimes with bizarre claims that rivers were left un-dredged just to protect wildlife. Some pundits even go so far as blaming “eco-zealots” for the floods, with accusations that environmentalists are more concerned about bugs and beetles than they are about people! It’s all so simple in some minds.

To all complex problems there is a solution that is simple, clear, obvious – and wrong! And this is where we are with some responses to flooding. The simple solution is the wrong one – the one that makes the effects of flooding far worse.

The practice is that flood risk can be reduced (not eliminated) with careful and sophisticated approaches that actually deliver results, rather than political knee-jerk reactions. And the practice is that careful management of river catchments to reduce flood risk downstream, also supports a rich and varied wildlife. Rich wetland wildlife is a sign that we are getting flood management right.

This has been shown time and again. In academic studies, government reports, careful case studies and direct on-the-ground experience. The problem for the media is that showing an area that didn’t flood because of some careful work done upstream does not make a good story. “Here’s a place where nothing happened” is not very riveting - far better to show misery and then blame someone.

Clear examples of where a proper approach has worked are places like Pont Bren, the Exmore mires and Pickering where Natural Flood Management has been successfully employed alongside more traditional flood engineering. Not heard of them? Of course not – nothing dramatic happened there. Other examples in the past include management by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust of their Potteric Carr preventing Doncaster from flooding and Hampshire Wildlife Trust managing of their reserve probably preventing flooding in Winchester

Rivers flood for three reasons.

First of all, lots of rain! When huge amounts of water fall out of the sky it has to go somewhere. The maths is actually quite simple, eloquently articulated in a recent farming conference. The catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be well over 1000 times larger than the area of the river it eventually goes into. So 1 inch of rain in the catchment, if delivered to the river all at once, becomes 1000 inches in the river. No amount of concrete pouring, dredging or defence building will cope with that. If we defend one area then water will go somewhere else. If we prevent flood plains from flooding (there’s a clue in the name!) then water will move to the next weak point, often an urban area.

Second, what causes increased storminess and more intense rain? Climate change. There is little scientific doubt that climate change increases the energy in the system and this increases the incidences and severity of heavy rain storms. This is no surprise. Climate scientists have been saying this for 20 years. Governments have preferred not to hear this and hope it might all just somehow go away. Storm damage and flooding is therefore another hidden cost of climate change, essentially a cost of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). Hidden costs have a habit of not staying hidden for long. The billions of £ of flood damage and lost productivity to the country is largely an unpaid bill for the fossil fuel industry (paid instead, by us, through the tax system). If the true cost of fossil fuels was reflected in the price we paid then it would be clear that green energy is a great deal cheaper.

The third reason is catchment management. How we manage river valleys can increase, or reduce, the flood risk to people downstream. Building hard flood defences, concreting over land with new development, woodland removal and river dredging upstream forces water ever quicker down the river and just increases flood risk to people downstream.

Building houses in floodplains is nonsensical, and yet it is still allowed. Even if we protect them with engineering from small floods, we can never stop the big floods. Furthermore, by preventing flooding in one area, we simply create it in another – maybe this is why areas that have not flooded in the past are now starting to get flooded.

The key is to allow areas of low-lying land away from people and property - flood plains - to flood, and then to slowly release water afterwards. This reduces the height of a river in flood. In Sussex there are now many examples of landowners doing woodland planting, washland creation and river re-naturalisation (such as putting back meanders and allowing rivers to merge with their flood plains) to reduce flood risk and to deliver other public benefits. This is done because of the careful thought and good will of the landowners involved, with a small amount of financial help from incentive packages. What is needed is good government policy and financial packages to enable this to happen in a planned and strategic way. Oh – and by the way, all this is good for wildlife too.

There is a place for dredging and engineered hard defences, but these have to be part of a far more sophisticated approach to managing flooding across the whole river catchment.

Does this all sound expensive? In truth it is expensive not to manage our catchments in a more sophisticated and naturalistic way. A study in the West Country calculated the costs of such naturalistic catchment management against the financial returns in terms of reduced flood risk and other benefits. The result was a 65:1 return on investment! A cost of £1 delivered £65 worth of benefit. Bad catchment management is not £1 saved, it is £65 spent! At present it is hard for farmers and landowners to gain the funding – even stay in business – by allowing flood plains to flood and deliver these public benefits. This is ludicrous. It should be easy, even lucrative, for a landowner to have the opportunity to manage catchments in a positive way.

The sad thing is that this is not even new. They have taken this approach in The Netherlands for decades and here the Environment Agency moved to this approach many years ago. A media frenzy, backed up by a lack of support by government for its own agencies could, however, throw us back into the dark ages.

Flood management is not a balance of wildlife versus people, as was implied to the Environment Agency’s CEO recently. Currently both people and wildlife are struggling with an antiquated approach to flood management which has left a legacy of poorly planned infrastructure, too much urban surface water run-off and over-drained landscapes which flood too easily. In the past we have chosen badly, perhaps we can make better choices for the future.


  • m parry:

    07 Jan 2016 22:39:58

    Quite right, good for you.

  • Melanie Dodd:

    08 Jan 2016 08:38:41

    Hear hear, but WHY is this not being portrayed in the media? Why are journalists not presenting this evidence and scientific approach to catchment management to make the politicians feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that what reporting is all about? It’s great that people like you and George Monbiot are calling for a change, but perhaps you need to be shouting louder and harder – it does beggar belief that things like this are not reported truthfully and scientifically – the BBC in particular should be called to account. Honest, truthful and fact based reporting about flooding rather than sensationalist “isn’t it awful” (well, yes, it is awful for those that are flooded) should be paramount and then maybe, just maybe, something real and tangible will be done on a catchment level. Politics is all about the quick win, the votes, what can I get done during my term – but with climate change and flooding, etc, its got to be more long term to make a real change – if only politicians would actually agree with each other for once, it would be amazing!

  • Jim FitzGibbon:

    08 Jan 2016 10:00:23

    I love this article.
    In the life of an oak Tree that if I remember correctly uses 50 gallons of water per day much benefit will result.

  • Pearl Carter:

    08 Jan 2016 15:55:44

    In the past flood plains were a part of our lives. They provided somewhere for water to go in periods of high rainfall and enriched the land accordingly when the waters had subsided. Farmers worked with the flood plains, cattle grazed the rich water meadows and wildfowl over wintered in them. It is only now that we are so set on draining and building on them that we are encountering problems. Flooding will only get worse due in part to global warming but it is about time our government woke up to the fact that we are building in the wrong places.

  • Maurice dorrity:

    08 Jan 2016 19:06:19

    The problem with flooding look up at the mountain Greenfield’s at appearing rite as far as u can see to many 4 wheel tractor’s up their l watched a man with adigger pick up drain 6 springs in one field that hit s our rivers count all those field s the volume and speed caused bankerousen witch silk s our rivers farmers should be compensated and return the mountain s to original and keep drainage away

  • Chris Stimson:

    08 Jan 2016 19:26:44

    An eleoquent and thoughtful piece unfortunately let down by suggesting that people advocating dredging as a major part of the solution are simpletons.
    Somewhere down the line of this argument certain groups have been able to present utter rubbish as “the truth”. In the last 25 years the lack of dredging has reduced the capacity of our streams and rivers by as much as 50%. Now even simpletons realise that if you reduce the ability of rivers to drain water by half then more water will remain upstream. This, to some will seem a good idea as it reduces the risk of downstream flooding. The flaw in this argument is the increased amount of rain, due to human induced climate change so we are told, falling on saturated ground that has had no chance to drain runs straight off and
    causes not one occassional flood but repeated floods every time there is more rain. it matters not a jot what management or planned flooding schemes you put in place, if you slow down the rate at which the water can flow back into the sea from the land you will get more flooding. Even a simpleton like myself can grasp that truth.

  • Chris Hannington:

    08 Jan 2016 23:44:01

    Good argument well put. I recall the River Soar flood defence scheme petered out in the 1990s when I was working at the National Rivers Authority because this traditional FDS couldn’t show a 1:1 cost benefit in the higher reaches. We have to be better stewards of resources and that means better accounting for money as well as for OUR environment; the environment in which we live

  • 09 Jan 2016 11:50:28

    Good article and it would be good to see more schemes like Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Potteric Carr in Doncaster, purchased for wildlife conservation, recreation and flood alleviation, with the wonderful support of all National Lottery Players. The Heritage Lottery Fund is keen to do more for nature and people so take a look at our website to see how we might be able to support similar new projects.

  • Belinda Potter:

    10 Jan 2016 11:33:19

    Well written piece however I do think that there are a combination of measures required to combat this problem which is not going to go away and just giving money to people who are flooded, whilst helping to alleviate the awfulness dies nothing to address the wider issues.
    Global warming is now a fact and we have to deal with it. On a macro scale it us up to our leaders to agree global measures to slow down the pace of the changes. It is unlikely that a reversal is possible, although mitigation should be the order of the day, and in fact this change in climate has happened on a regular basis throughout earth’s history.
    Building on flood plains makes no sense other than to those who wish to make better profits as these sites are flat and easy to build on. The problems start when the existing river is constrained by a smaller channel with nowhere for the water to go. The plain that would have absorbed the excess is now concreted over and so far more water than before is now heading downstream. Potential for flooding both on the existing flat area which is now built over and downstream due to the extra water now gearing that way.
    Farmers can help by letting their fields flood but to be fair they need to be compensated as this can result in additional food costs where they have to keep their animals away from the fields that are unusable.
    Dredging should also firm part of an overall strategy to ensure the excess water can flow away quickly back to the sea.
    Doing nothing is no longer an option and sensational pictures of floods and people in misery does not address the issue. Simply blaming those who seek to preserve our wildlife is incredibly niaive.

  • Jo:

    10 Jan 2016 17:02:13

    Tony. This is good. You are right to emphasis the role of flood plains, a lot of eNGOs and conservation voices have neglected that and focused instead on upland management, which is important for all sorts of reasons, but probably won’t make much difference to big floods. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dave*:

    11 Jan 2016 06:35:54

    Interesting and I dare say fairly accurate, but let’s not get too carried away with ourselves. I dare say some form of flood management is practiced up north and in Scotland but they are flooded out and would probably feel a bit cheesed off at some of what is said here.
    I like Owen Patterson’s idea of paying farmers to allow land to take overspill instead of letting communities go under. It may happen to an extent but let’s do more of it if it saves peoples’ homes and businesses. And let’s not get all anti-dredging either. Dredging has its place in the overall picture.
    As is usually the case the best results will probably come from a mixed approach. I think it best that those in various fields don’t get too defensive and start throwing accusations and criticism at others. You need to work together, and not feel too smug and certain. It can lead to a closed mind and that never helped anyone.

  • Maurice E Boyce:

    11 Jan 2016 12:30:30

    I would say most City and Town dwellers think all that lovely green empty flood plain is wasteful use of space! and must be built on,whether its Houses or Roads,no matter,And when an expert says ,there maybe a flood in 100 years, Thats too long in the future ,the Developers say to worry us ,and Councils agree with them ,and allow the Developers a free-hand,And Flooding happens And the Councils wring their hands and say why!!

  • Sue D:

    11 Jan 2016 17:14:43

    Well researched and well presented article- I agree, these facts should be more widely publicised.
    The successful flood defences at Pickering in Yorkshire was actually featured on BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” at lunchtime today- I hope someone from the Environment Agency was listening!

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