Flooding and the role of natural flood defence

Watching the devastating effects of flooding on our country on the news should open up the debate of adaptation to climate change. We have known for some time that climate change would result in more regular and severe climatic conditions. Storm Dennis is a prime example of this problem.

Natural solutions are a big part of the solution. We have for centuries dredged and straightened our rivers to allow for water to move more quickly. Although this seems to make sense it results in water moving quickly from the highlands to the sea and during severe weather events causes built up areas in confluences to be flooded. In the Netherlands, where there is the best form of water management, they have resolved to allow rivers to to naturally meander and flood the plains, as this holds the water on the land, which slowly then flows during these flood events. This is a natural solution to flood management.

Although this process reduces year round agriculture it better protects built up areas, and actually results in water being cleaned before flowing to the sea. The costs of this form of flood protection are much less than other forms of hard flood protection and there are numerous benefits; carbon capture, water cleaning, natural restoration of nutrients and wildlife.

It’s vital we educate people about these solutions during this time, especially farmers, and find ways to financially reward landowners in allowing their rivers to flood their land. I believe that the beneficiaries have a role to paying for this service; councils, water companies, insurance companies and the government. What do you think?

Also- is this the time to be enthusing others to do more to tackle climate change in their own lives? Is it right to use a lever such as storm Dennis to do this? Would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

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Every time I watch the news and see all the awful pictures - I can’t help wondering why our government has just agreed to spend billions on HS2, rather than investing in flood defences and education on building to deal for these situations, which even those with their heads in the sand on Climate Change must be able to see are getting worse and worse… We don’t have to look very far - the Netherlands have been doing it for years!

A couple of comments on your article Tom. You refer to farmers allowing rivers to find their natural course and flood the fields. Your next statement is, “Although this process reduces year round agriculture it better protects built up areas, and actually results in water being cleaned before flowing to the sea.” The outcomes you mention are good for urban areas but not good for the farmland. Financial compensation to the farmers is not going to replace the lost crops. The lost crops can be many and varied i.e. food directly for human consumption or after processing, and food for cattle,sheep, etc. So, how is the lost production made up? Importing from other countries with it’s attendant financial and environmental costs? The real problem is we have chosen to build in floodplains and for some strange reason continue to do so. Demolishing and relocating hundreds or thousands of properties is not an option. However, flood defences in and around these areas can be provided but it must be properly planned and take into consideration the idea that you mention regarding natural defences downstream.

Paul, thanks for your reply. You’re right. If we allow flooding of farmland it will reduce production. In some areas this will mean having one crop instead of two in a year, in others it will mean no crops at all, and/or less grazing.

One of the answers to reduced production would be to move a more plant-based diet (25% of land is used to produce grain or grass, with the majority being used to feed livestock). With meat-based diets on the decrease, this is a good solution and wouldn’t result in more land being needed to feed us.

The other obvious one is to simply waste less food. 40% of all the food we produce is wasted. 10% that enters into a British home is thrown away and around 30% is lost in supplying the end consumer. We really need to be finding better ways to look after the food we produce.

Around 50% of our food is imported so we will continue to be dependant upon foreign sources. But the answer to independence in terms of food is also the same to being more sustainable. Eat; local, in season and less meat. That way there is less wasted and we make the best use of land.

I agree with the point about building on flood plains - it’s crazy that we allow for this to happen. We do need to build hard flood defences to protect these houses alongside natural flood protection.

The uplands often provide the least harmful natural solutions to flood protection in terms of loss of production. We have drained bogs in these areas and have removed heaths to make room for sheep grazing. We are currently heavily subsidising this industry with single farm payment, with an ever-decreasing demand for lamb in this country. Yorkshire has been hit hard by flooding. Restoring a number of natural features will absorb huge quantities of water.

In terms of subsidizing farmers - I think we should pay them for the environmental services their land provides to all of us. Coming from Exmoor I understand the low margins from upland sheep farming, but don’t have much experience of the lowland wheat-growing areas, which are of fundamental importance in terms of food production. I do know that many are already suffering from the impacts of flooding, so we need to find ways to support and enhance the offering.

A found this useful report on farming statistics which may be of interest.