The flooding blighting much of the UK has dominated the news now for two weeks and shows little sign of abating for the next 7-10 days. Initially when the flooding was fairly isolated to the Somerset levels the reporting in newspapers and on television was led, and dominated by, science and environmental commentators who took pains to research their articles and base their conclusions on the best available evidence and advice.
As the flooding story continued, and became more of a national political debate, the coverage has increasing become dumbed down to human interest stories and the excellent reporting from aforementioned science correspondents has been buried beneath coverage of train cancellations and people evacuating their homes. This has had the pervasive effect of needing to condense the scientific explanations of flooding into easily digested throw-away comments in reports. The hugely successful FLAG local campaign group in the Levels have been campaigning for a long time for increased dredging of the Rivers Tone & Parrett. The media love a human interest story and the combination of distraught people, large gatherings with placards and a simple explanation for flooding (which also happens to have a simple scapegoat) proved irresistible.
The cumulative outcome of this is that the human interest stories on the Somerset Levels dominates the news, and the narrative that has emerged is one of a lack of dredging leading to flooding. The government, against advice of the Chartered Institute for Water & Environmental Management, leading hydrologists and flood scientists, has embraced the dredging narrative and committed to dredging the levels. There are two fundamental problems with the way this issue has played out in the media.
Firstly it is highly doubtful dredging rivers in general, or the Tone & Parrett specifically, would have any appreciable effect on flood events of the magnitude we have witnessed recently. To use one of my trademark analogies, it’s a little like drinking two bottles of wine and suggesting the brandy chaser was the thing that made you drunk. It’s possible it might be the case, but it’s highly unlikely. Stretching the analogy (as is my wont) and speaking purely of my own alcohol tolerance, I could drink 1 or 2 glasses of wine, with or without a brandy and be coherent. If I drink 4 glasses of wine, I’ll likely be hammered either way. It is only in the very specific case of my consuming precisely 3 glasses of wine that drinking, or not drinking a brandy will have any difference whatsoever. That is the essential problem with dredging; increasing the river conveyance only has an effect for a very specific flood event which would just over-top the un-dredged river (and thus may not over-top in the presence of dredging). It’s a little more complex in managed systems like the Levels, but the magnitude of event is most relevant issue. This one was far, far too big.
Secondly, and most importantly, this issue is completely irrelevant at the present time. The priorities in a natural disaster should be firstly to prevent or minimise loss of life, prevent or minimise damage to infrastructure and to ensure as quick a recovery as possible after the event. In this respect the relevant bodies are doing their best to deal with the life and property issue. We should already be talking about practical measures to help people clean up after the floods and to provide counselling and support to those affected. This is how the World Bank is helping Malawi deal with climate change and flooding. This should be the dominant narrative. Instead by focusing on who is to blame for a natural disaster we risk being ill prepared for the challenges when the waters recede. At this stage it is completely irrelevant who is to blame for flooding (and for the record I don’t believe anyone, or anything IS to blame). Apportioning blame serves no-one at the present time. In this respect the FLAG campaign on the Levels has been somewhat a victim of its own success. They have successfully steered the national debate on flooding towards drainage and dredging in an area where only 40 homes have been flooded (compare to 48000 homes and £3-6bn damage in 2007 floods). I say these figures only for comparison, not to belittle the huge suffering of those affected in both events.
The problem is in 2007 the debate was on assistance, insurance payouts, flood funding and proper analysis of where future flood policy should go (culminating in the extensive Pitt Report). In short the problem was seen as a natural disaster and focus was on sorting out the aftermath and learning lessons (albeit with mixed success). In these floods by focusing on blame, the narrative seems simpler and has culminated in “dredge the rivers, stop the floods”. The government has seized on the scape goat with wild abandon, Eric Pickles recently savaging the EA on the Andrew Marr show and committing to dredging the Tone & Parrett and generally appearing to embrace a retrograde approach to risk management. So problem solved?
Well, no. The rivers will be dredged, the Somerset Levels will still flood in a similar sized rainfall event, to broadly the same depth, extent and duration, and none of this helps people get their homes, livelihoods and lives back together in the coming months. We’ve been having the wrong debate.
As I write the number of severe flood warnings (risk to life) are rising on the Thames, Worcester is beginning to flood and no-one can seriously think this is due a deficit of dredging on the Thames and Severn. In focusing over the past ten days on searching for scapegoats and apportioning blame in increasingly preposterous ways the government has been desperately trying to deflect attention from cuts to the EA, as if they are Nero blaming Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Moreover the complete failure to grasp, or take the time to brush up on hydrology means they’ve been parroting ridiculous claims that flooding can be stopped. It can’t. We can mitigate it, can make sure we are prepared for it to lessen effects and speed recovery, we can even manipulate catchment hydrology to “move” or concentrate flooding in one place (farms/countryside) to lessen flooding elsewhere (towns). We cannot however lessen the rain.
Meanwhile the maligned agency has been working tirelessly to mitigate the damage of the current floods. The government should focus on supporting the one body that can, and is, equipped to do something to lessen the impact of these floods. The government should also be thinking about how to support people in the eventual clean-up. They should not be wasting time worrying about who is to blame. If necessary that can come later with a proper enquiry and report.