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Flooding experts say Britain will have to adapt to climate change – and fast

 
Flooding in Somerset, U.K.

A boat steered by emergency services personnel carries residents along a flooded road from the village of Muchelney on the Somerset Levels. Photograph: Toby Melville/REUTERS

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Flooding experts say Britain will have to adapt to climate change – and fast” was written by Damian Carrington, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th January 2014 18.08 UTC

“You are looking at retreat,” says Prof Colin Thorne, a flooding expert at the University of Nottingham. “It is the only sensible policy – it makes no sense to defend the indefensible.” This assessment of how the UK will have to adapt to its increasing flood risk is stark, but is shared by virtually all those who work on the issue.

Centuries of draining wetlands, reclaiming salt marshes and walling in rivers is being put into reverse by climate change, which is bringing fiercer storms, more intense downpours and is pushing up sea levels. Sea walls are now being deliberately allowed to be breached, with new defences built further back, and fields turned into lakes to slow the rush of the water, as flood management turns back towards natural methods.

Thorne says the strategy of once more “making space for water” has been around for a decade, but the urgency of implementing it has increased sharply. “We thought then we were talking about the 2030s, but it is all happening a heck of a lot quicker.”

Large parts of southern England had their wettest January ever recorded, the Met Office announced on Thursday, and the Somerset Levels, much of which is below sea level, have been inundated for weeks. “I have enormous sympathy for these people,” says Thorne. But he thinks the 1,000-year history of keeping the sea out of the area is coming to the end. “Can the Somerset Levels be defended between now and the end of the century? No,” he says.

Hannah Cloke, a flooding expert at the University of Reading, agrees: “We could make the choice to protect the Levels forever, but that is going to take a lot of resources. My gut feeling is that you are going to have to let that be a marshland in the end. But people live there and have their livelihoods there, so it is very tricky.” Cloke says greatest priority across the country is giving people the help they need to adjust to more frequent floods, from warnings and emergency planning down to home-level protection, such as water-absorbing green roofs and porous paving stones. She points to a small but growing trend of riverbank homes being raised on stilts.

“We have to realise we cannot defend at all costs. We have to adapt to climate change,” says Professor Rob Duck, a coastal expert at the University of Dundee, noting that Hull, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Sussex and the Wirral are places at risk. “Building higher and higher walls is not the answer.” Big flood defences often just shift the problem elsewhere, he says, or cause an even greater catastrophe when they eventually breach.

Ola Holmstrom, UK head of water at consultancy firm WSP, says the hard choices must be taken soon: “Unfortunately increasing urbanisation and climate change means the question of flood risk management is not going to go away. Someone will need to make some tough decisions, and for the benefit of those currently flooded and those whose livelihood depends on the land, it would be best if this happens sooner than later.”

Government-funded landscape experiments in Somerset and Yorkshire are demonstrating that blocking upland drainage channels, replanting trees next to rivers and deliberately flooding fields can protect downstream homes by slowing the flow of water, which stops waters rising fast and reduces the silting up of channels.

“In the UK, going back to nature is the right way to go: it works,” says Cloke. “We have tried the engineering solution and the cost of maintaining that is very high and we just don’t have the money to maintain these standards.” The government’s annual funding for flood defences is falling by 15% in real terms under the coalition, while the risk of flooding is rising and is the greatest impact of climate change, according to government scientists.

Making more use of land to hold back flood water will have the greatest impact on farmers, who manage two-thirds of the UK’s land. Paul Cottington, south-west environment adviser for the National Farmers’ Union, says: “The land has been modified for centuries and there’s a reason for that: we have very good productive farmland.” He says every 100 hectares of land can feed 400 people, and that some farmers are already working in uplands to help alleviate flooding. But, Cottington says, farmers could provide flood relief with their land, if paid for that service with long-term agreements, and he points to an existing scheme in Kent that protects Tonbridge in this way. Thorne says bluntly that such changes to farmland are inevitable: “Get used to it, guys.”

 

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