Flooding: RSPB view on how we should respond

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Flooding: RSPB view on how we should respond

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Anyone who watches the news or looks outside the window knows that it's wet out there. Forecasters say the weather is going to get worse before it's better. 

I am not sure that this is intentionally designed to coincide with World Wetlands Day on Sunday 2 February but it is certainly creating suffering for a lot of people. And it is, once again, opening up a debate about how we should plan for and respond to flooding.

Over the next few days, I want to put a spotlight on our response both on those areas suffering the most and also say what we should be doing nationally to prepare for and shape a different future.

Today, I want to talk about the floods crisis in the Somerset Levels.

A toxic mix of intense prolonged rain and high tides has created the biggest flood – over 65 square kilometres - for two decades in this deep rural part of the West Country. 

The despair is palpable. Homes are flooded. Villages are isolated. Roads are submerged. Farmers are telling us of fields full of sewage. 

It's abundantly clear that we need a better way forward for people and wildlife in what is England's largest lowland farmed wetland. The cries of frustration scream out from the newspapers and our television sets, in a sea of claims and counter-claims. 

What key actions are available, how will they happen, what's the role for Government (of all forms including its agencies), and what role will farming as the principle land use offer in the future? 

These frustrations are made even greater because there is nothing new in these calls - they have been made by raised and discussed at length by many people over many years particularly following floods in the late 1990s, 2012 and 2013.

We have not been short of answers, but we have lacked real leadership to make the necessary long term changes. This is the critical barrier to achieving a transition to more resilient floodplains that work for people, businesses including farming, communities and the environment. 

Nature is a big ally in any fair, rational, efficient and effective transition to resilience and I'll come back to how in a future blog.

The principles are easy - they have been the orthodoxy for years now:

  • Focus flood defence resources on protecting lives, homes, businesses and utilities
  • Slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods
  • Use the existing water management infrastructure better by spreading flood water more appropriately when it reaches the floodplain
  • Build greater resilience in the floodplain land uses, especially in farming
  • Maintain critical watercourses to ensure appropriate levels of drainage.

Turning these sorts of principles into reality is now the challenge. Successive governments, egged on often by partisan interests of one sort or another, have ducked it. They have failed miserably to play their part in preparing and leading change. They missed the opportunity during the days of relative plenty assuaging concerns and avoiding difficult decisions. Their agencies, the Environment Agency and Natural England, are being asked to do more on an ever-decreasing budget. They will struggle to meet the demands placed on them. 

Today, the Prime Minister said that dredging will start as soon as possible. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, visiting Somerset earlier this week called for an integrated Action Plan crafted by local interests, and rightly asked for six weeks to reflect before coming up with the answers.

But, the Government (be it the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister) has a role in leading the transition to a different future through regulation, incentives (especially through design of the new CAP in England) but also through opening up an honest debate about the changes that are happening in our country and how we need to adapt to these new pressures. 

Extreme weather events will increasingly become the norm because of climate change and, as Government Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, challenged this week (see here - Times subscription needed) we must focus our debate on what we are going to do to help us adapt.

My next blog will focus on the role of the new CAP package in helping shape the future we want and nature needs.

  • I think there are certain key things to keep in mind in this situation. First of all the amount of rain we have had is exceptional. This month looks like being a record for rainfall however it is just as likely that this time next year we will be short of water and need the rain. Secondly, large areas of the Somerset levels are at or slightly below sea level. Thirdly a few thousand years ago most of the Levels were permanently covered with water. Some flooding should therefore be expected in most winters but as mentioned this winter is very exceptional in the degree of flooding.

    With all this in mind the challenge is therefore how to work with nature to avoid the very server flooding that inundates peoples homes. not to avoid normal flooding that can occur in most normal winters.

    How to do this will require specialist expertise and a good knowledge of the area. Knee jerk reactions are not required in this situation. Working with nature, not against it, and keeping the character of the Levels is the way ahead.