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Flooding: too little defence, too late, as the waters rise

Flooding in Somerset, U.K.

The sun rises over flood water on the Somerset Levels near Langport. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Flooding: too little defence, too late, as the waters rise” was written by Tracy McVeigh, for The Observer on Saturday 1st February 2014 21.11 UTC

Like the lines drawn by parents measuring the height of their growing children, there are chalked marks on the walls of the houses piled in a picturesque jumble along the lower streets of Yalding. They have been drawn by residents scoring the progress of floodwaters through their homes over what has been the wettest month since records began and is heading towards being the wettest winter Britain has seen in 100 years.

On Christmas Eve, this Domesday Book Kent village was deluged by riverwater and sewage that swirled close to two metres high in places, swallowing cars, dislodging sheds and climbing the stairs of Kevin Fox’s townhouse into his family’s first-floor kitchen. “We got a lot of stuff upstairs when we knew it was coming,” he said. “Worse things have happened to people, there’s a lot worse off than us. But it wasn’t much fun. We didn’t have a Christmas.”

His chalk lines are on both the inside and the outside of the house. The fridge and cooker stand water-damaged and useless, the floor tiles are deeply cracked and the walls yellowed with the tidemark of floodwater.

The waters receded and the family is still living here for now, cooking on a gas-powered barbecue, but with life jackets hanging on the coat pegs in the hallway. All the neighbours lucky enough to have picked sympathetic insurance companies have moved out to temporary accommodation with only a few families remaining.

Across the street Matt Miller wasn’t covered for the damage to his cottage and he is still trying to dry it out himself. “No choice. It’ll take at least another month just to clean up,” he said. But even as he works, the sandbags are back stacked against the door of his waterlogged kitchen while Fox has donned his hi-vis jacket and is again out with flood volunteers.

The incessant rain has brought the teeming brown waters swirling again far outside the banks of the River Beult and around Yalding’s streets and outlying fields, lapping at the bottom of Fox’s garden. His stepson George, 11, is worried about the chickens. “At Christmas we brought them upstairs but their house was ruined; someone else I know lost their chickens, they drowned.”

Like many rural areas hit by this winter of wet, residents want flood defences. Parish councillor Geraldine Brown was among those who drew up the village’s own emergency plan after flooding in 2000 and the council is now calling for more flood protection. She estimates it will cost £25m for flood defences on the Beult and the same again to raise the local reservoir by a metre. With demand for more flood defence spending coming from communities from Cornwall to Wales, the Midlands to western Scotland and Northern Ireland, quite apart from the floodplains of the Somerset Levels and the entire east coast that’s losing 8mm to the sea year on year, it seems unlikely the money will be forthcoming.

This government cut the Labour government’s spending on flood defences to £2.34bn, down from £2.37bn, while 15% reductions in the Environment Agency’s staffing have been announced – with the loss of 550 staff working on flood maintenance and preparation. Figures show that 4,000 homes have been built on flood plains, against Environment Agency advice, in the last five years, and now the agency’s ability to offer advice to local authorities on such building has been drastically curtailed with the onus now on developers to carry out such assessments. In 2010 communities secretary Eric Pickles scrapped the obligation on councils to prepare for how climate change could affect their residents, while the UK is far behind targets on coastal realignment – including the restoration of salt marshes – intended to keep pace with rising sea levels and tidal flooding.

In January the government’s committee on climate change said spending on flood defence was £750m below the sum needed to keep risks from flooding at current levels. “Flood defences deliver fantastic value for money. But … the cuts imposed mean floods will happen that could be cost effectively avoided.” The committee concluded: “Not enough is being spent and we can expect the number of households at flood risk and damages from flood events to be on the increase.”

Craig Woolhouse, head of flood incident management at the Environment Agency, admitted that budgets meant smaller communities might have to accept they were past saving – unless they could raise the money to defend themselves.

On Thursday, after a month of floodwater cutting off farms and villages in the Somerset Levels, David Cameron announced that the Ministry of Defence would be sending in army equipment and manpower to deliver food, transport people and distribute sandbags.


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