Storms, floods and a deluge of crap
Natural flood management is part of the solution, not dredging. But if we seriously want to preserve and restore nature, argues Eddie Ford, then we need to challenge capitalism
Parts of southern and central England have experienced the wettest January since Met Office statistics began in 1910 and, according to the Radcliffe Meteorological Station in Oxford University, the deluge for that month was greater than for any winter month since daily recording started in 1767 - three times the average amount. Thus a total of 146.9mm of rain fell in January, smashing the previous record of 138.7mm in 1852.1
As the rain keeps falling, an air of crisis surrounds the government, with David Cameron cancelling a trip to the Middle East and instead making a visit on February 11 to the south-west areas worst affected by the floods - including Dawlish, whose train station was virtually swept away, leaving the broken line literally hanging in mid-air. It will take at least two months to fix this track and also restore the submerged rail lines between Bridgwater and Taunton (north of Exeter). Meaning effectively that the entire south-west is cut off from the rest of the rail network, causing havoc for the tourist-dependent local economy. Meanwhile, more than 65 million cubic metres of water have flooded onto the Somerset Levels, with some farmers left with up to 90% of their land under water.
After his sweeping visit to the stricken south-west, Cameron held his first press conference in the UK since the summer - indicating the level of the crisis. He warned that “things may well get worse before they get better” - a fairly obvious statement of fact, given the ‘red’ weather warning that came out of the Met Office on February 12. Totally exceptional hurricane-force winds of up to 100mph battering west Wales and north-west England are predicted. Further flooding is expected along the Thames in Berkshire and Surrey and in general river levels are getting alarmingly high across the whole south-west, central and southern England. At the moment of writing, there are 121 flood warnings in place, 14 of which are severe.2 About 1,000 properties have been flooded out over the past week and the military have built a 60-metre wall at Datchet because of the “most serious developing situation” in the Thames valley. A 100-strong company of her majesty’s finest, the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, were also deployed to Wraysbury - but most of them were left sitting in the back of their lorries, as they had forgotten to bring wellies and waders.3
Surprising some at the press conference, Cameron declared that “money is no object in this relief effort” and “whatever money is needed for it will be spent” - no austerity when it comes to flood prevention, it seems. He personally would marshal the full resources of the state and “take whatever steps are necessary”, and in that spirit will be chairing a new cabinet committee on February 13 to deal with the emergency. Time will tell though whether his words come back to haunt him - Cameron is not conjuring up new money, but is just raiding the pre-existing budget allocation for such matters. There will be lots of disappointed and angry people.
Regarding the Somerset Levels, Cameron said new pumps were in action and were removing three million tonnes of water a day - but this could be a labour of Sisyphus, given the continual rain. The prime minster promised that a tax deferral scheme would help businesses hit by flooding, while up to £10 million in new funding is being found to support farmers. Grants for homeowners and businesses will be available to improve flood defences, and another 1,600 military personnel will be deployed by the end of the week - if they remember to bring their wellies.
Interestingly, Cameron additionally stated that uninsured households could access “hardship funds” - more big government. Furthermore, he would decide if the new national flood insurance scheme should be “adapted” to assist businesses. You can see why. Full of the new-found spirit of national unity, naturally, the Association of British Insurers has already said it is “inevitable” that general house premiums will rise, given that flooding is now “the new normal” - no longer an ‘act of god’, presumably. Proving yet again that the insurance industry is a truly parasitical one, when it should be run, like the NHS, on the basis of need, not profit.
The ungenerous have suggested that Cameron’s abrupt shift into Churchillian mode coincided with the flooding of the Tory heartlands in Berkshire, Surrey and elsewhere. For instance, Eton is now on a flood alert. And, seeing that local and European elections are coming up in May, with the United Kingdom Independence Party breathing down the Tories’ neck …
Anyhow, Ed Miliband too confirmed that he would cancel a trip abroad in order to be with the British people in their hour of need. We are all in this together. Hence he visited homes in the Thames Valley. Alas, this attempt at gravitas was slightly ruined when he found himself asked to leave a school hall in Wraysbury by the wife of the Conservative deputy mayor accusing him of arriving for a “photo opportunity”. Heaven forbid.
Of course, Cameron is desperately trying to reassert his credentials as a national leader after a disastrous round of petty bickering, in-fighting and wretched blame-gaming within sections of the Tory Party at the beginning of the week. Exactly the wrong impression to give at such a time. You drown whilst we settle old scores and engage in departmental empire-building. A deluge of crap.
First off was local loon Ian Liddell-Grainger - the great-great-great grandson of Queen Victoria and thus 309th in the line of succession to the throne. The furious Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset lambasted Lord Chris Smith - the Labour head of the Environmental Agency - for not visiting the county sooner, calling him a “coward” and a “git” and threatening to “stick his head down the loo and flush”. Then the obnoxious secretary of state for local communities, Eric Pickles, weighed in on February 9. He snidely apologised on behalf of the government for the fact they had “relied too much” on the Environment Agency’s advice, as “we thought we were dealing with experts”: he was furious with the EA for not dredging the rivers on the Somerset Levels. Pickles claimed that the agency had cut back on dredging not because of a lack of funding, but rather as a “matter of policy”, as it made it more difficult for the excess water to flow out - and he went on to admit that he would not be wearing a “save Chris Smith” T-shirt if the peer decided to quit.
Perhaps surprisingly, these comments exasperated the environment secretary, Owen Paterson - temporarily out of action thanks to a detached retina. He rang Downing Street from his hospital bed complaining about the “simplistic nonsense” being spouted by the “grandstanding” Pickles. Then again, it is hard to feel too sorry for Paterson, who must surely be one of the “headless chicken brigade” that the prince of Wales attacked on January 31 - he accused “powerful groups of deniers” of engaging in intimidation against scientists and others warning of the catastrophic consequence of global warming. Indeed, in a sane world Paterson is just about the last person you would make environment secretary, having been associated in the past with crackpot climate ‘sceptics’ (so-called). Nor has he, it seems, ever attended a single briefing on climate change from his own science adviser, Professor David MacKay. Great, obviously the ideal man for the job. Back in the real world, scientists are “95% certain” that human activity bears some sort of responsibility for the change in climate.
Lord Smith, the butt of Tory anger, finally abandoned restraint and on February 10 conducted a series of broadcast interviews hitting back at the hypocritical Pickles, saying his staff know a “100 times more” than any politician about flooding - which is obviously true. He said the EA had “acknowledged” the local view on the Somerset Levels about dredging and had allocated £400,000 for the job - the “maximum amount” allowed by treasury rules. It is also a straightforward fact that the coalition government has cut spending on flood defences and so on, notwithstanding Cameron’s apparent February 11 commitment to ‘unlimited’ spending. So in November 2010 the environment department said that funding over the next four years would be “just 8% less than our average yearly spend” - which, translated, meant that the budget was reduced in real terms by about 27%, as Smith criticised at the time.4
However, the real problem goes much deeper. As alluded to by Pickles, many within the EA and elsewhere are very dubious about the benefits of dredging - and rightly so. Not only will dredging make very little difference, if any: it can be positively damaging. You do not have to be a genius to work it out. A river’s capacity is tiny by comparison to the catchment from which it draws its water. Therefore, dredging is likely to cause faster and more dangerous floods downstream when the water hits - for example - the nearest urban obstacle, like a trail track or bridge.
But the problems do not end there. If you cut off a river from its flood plain by turning it into a deep trench, you run the risk of speeding up the flow of water to other areas downstream. Congratulations - you have just made a bad situation worse by creating more dangerous rivers, undermining the foundations of bridges, weirs, culverts and river walls and causing untold destruction to the natural world; removing gravel from river beds by dredging leads to the loss of spawning grounds for fish, and can cause the loss of some species, like otters and water voles. And you may have spent enormous amounts of money making this ecological disaster. Now there is real joined-up thinking.
So what is to be done in a country with extensive areas of densely populated and low-lying land along coasts and rivers? It is obvious that you cannot ‘hold the line’ everywhere: it would be far too costly and would destroy irreplaceable shoreline ecosystems through ‘coastal squeeze’. No, the future for coastal management in the UK will involve realigning defences by moving - or retiring them - landward, which as a necessity requires finding just and equitable ways to relocate and compensate those who have been flooded because irresponsible capitalists have built houses on flood plains.
This alternative natural flood management will be predicated on working to increase infiltration and detain water within headwater catchments. So, calls for generalised dredging and channelisation should certainly be strongly resisted - it is counterproductive, just like badger-culling, even if it does temporarily appease the myopic and narrow interests of some farmers.
Rather, we communists fight for long-term solutions - not quick fix quackery. Capitalism is degrading the environment - and by definition a global problem requires global solutions. Meanwhile, here in Britain we need to think about preserving and restoring what nature gave us in the first place “for the sake of future generations” and “where possible enhance the riches of nature”, as we say in our Draft programme (section 3.3, ‘Environment’). Our common treasury. We need to plant more trees and other deep vegetation to retain and hold back the water and lower the banks, whilst de-canalising the upper reaches - allowing rivers once more to create meanders, braids, oxbow lakes, etc. Furthermore, as we also say in our programme, “extensive wilderness areas should be created, along with the reintroduction of the full array of native plants and animal species”. Eg, the beaver - a brilliant manager of woods and rivers. In the same spirit we say: “... where feasible there should be the re-establishment of forests, natural floodplains, marshes, fens and heath land”.
Just think about the now famous Somerset Levels - the name rather gives it away. Historically, it has been a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area - consisting mainly of hydric soil, which supports a variety of aquatic plants, and marshes, etc. Wetlands, of course, are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems and serve a number of roles in the environment - water purification, flood control, shoreline stability and so forth. But over a couple of generations increasing parts of the Somerset Levels suffered the same fate as East Anglia - systematically drained and turned over to capitalist farming. In the case of East Anglia the resulting landscape is almost perfect for capitalist agriculture: extremely flat and extremely fertile, also allowing the application of the latest innovations of argi-business, not least giant computer-operated combine harvesters.
Communists think the idea of returning parts of the Somerset Levels and other places to nature should be seriously considered. After all, we stand for genuinely sustainable development, as opposed to the petty bourgeois utopianism of the Greens, based on the worship of small business and ‘small is beautiful’ localism. In our society of the future the crippling and alienating division between town and country will have been overcome and there will be no more hellish concrete jungles, urban sprawl, rural isolation, huge mega-farms or uninterrupted, industrialised agriculture.
3. The Guardian February 11.
4. The Observer November 21 2010.