Re-wind back to August 2004 and the pretty sleepy Cornish fishing village of Boscastle. One day put this lovely place on the north Cornwall coast on the map – dominating the airwaves, our screens and front pages. A torrent of water cascaded down from the hills causing chaos as buildings collapsed and cars floated down the river.
Fast forward on to December 2015 and the north of England and Scottish borders has taken a real battering from wave after wave of storms. Records have tumbled for rainfall and river levels. Homes have been flooded, bridges collapsed and there has been a daily dose of immense drama combined with the determination of a community coming together.
The last eleven years have come to symbolise the age of extreme weather. Floods that rarely happened on this vast scale are becoming a relatively common occurrence – many places across the UK have been affected. One of the core functions of the land – holding water – just isn’t happening. To paraphrase Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going on’?
I’m no hydrologist or ecologist but it seems that a combination of intense, almost tropical rainfall, combined with a soil that is knackered, is leading to flooding that any flood defences can’t cope with. Politicians will stand up and promise to throw money at finding solutions and they’ll demand answers. The focus will turn to how we defend the places where people live.
But the real lessons must start in the hills. We need a holistic approach to managing water that looks at its journey from source to sea. There isn’t one silver bullet for this challenging issue and the topography of the land means that there can’t be a one size fits all solution.
What is really needed is a long term plan that slows the flow of the water. You’ll never be able to stop flooding but you can certainly look at reducing some of the risk of flooding. Carefully considered interventions in the way that we manage and use the land as it flows along rivers and streams is essential. Our catchment systems are creaking badly and we need to look at how we can work with natural processes rather than just looking for hard engineering solutions. Yes flood defences need to be part of the solution to protect people’s properties and businesses but they can ‘t be the only solution.
Pointing the finger of blame at one group of people or an organisation isn’t helpful, either; this is more of a systemic failure. Now is the time for solutions and looking at how we manage the land effectively, bringing communities, land managers and owners, experts etc together to look at what needs to be done and how we do it – slowing the flow.