What to do about flooding?

Flood waters have swept across parts of the UK and people’s Christmas celebrations have been ruined as a consequence. Indeed people in Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee have also become acquainted with this problem, thus putting flood defences at the front of people’s minds on both sides of the Atlantic. Hydrographers and geographers have been bombarded with questions that often have complicated answers, but because people want action they often clasp onto one thing as the solution, such as dredging. There are many different things that could be done and this piece is about some of these solutions.

Before we begin may I say that, very much like how art is a reflection of the artist, this article is incredibly unsexy. Even for people who have studied geography this will be unsexy for you as well. The following suggestions will not be about ‘Hollywood’ projects like massive dams and huge amounts of new investment into new government agencies; rather it will focus on local schemes that aren’t architecturally imposing upon their surroundings.
There are many things that cause flooding, from climate change and urbanisation to topography and high rainfall. Some of these can be dealt with more easily that others but it is important that any policy proposals consider all these factors.Government maintenance of sewers and other such infrastructure is something that is incredibly important however there is only so much that local people can do. If the government in Westminster wants to ignore local people’s demands, even if they protest and petition, they will do so.
This doesn’t mean, however, that local people are powerless to act. Obviously the first thing to do would be refocus any protesting or petitioning to local government who are more rooted in their communities. In terms of government actions themselves, local council should look into permeable pavements so that runoff isn’t exacerbated further downstream. As well as this suggestion, councils could focus on reducing their local area’s carbon footprint by encouraging people to take up cycling and/or buy local produce.
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A 2014 flood devastated farmland in Wolvercote, Oxford. (James Holme)
Investment into new sewers is expensive and, although this may become necessary in the future, there are things that local governments can invest in to deal with the UK’s only real natural disasters. Creating new water stores to reduce the amount of water in rivers and straightening rivers are both useful ways to prevent flooding; it must be said however that the latter is not an option in many places. Building huge dams like the Hoover Dam in the US isn’t really an option for a number of reasons but there are some places where constructing more locks to regulate river height is important, but I do believe that the key to any plan should be building more water stores, whether artificial like canals or reservoirs or natural like marshlands. By removing water from a river, any increased amount of rainfall would first have to increase the amount of water back to its original level thus reducing the risk of flooding.
Although the government should focus on maintaining water treatment plants and sewers, we need to make our voices heard that these big projects, which are referred to as ‘hard-engineering’, are not always the answer. For example one very effective way of reducing flooding is planting trees. When it rains in an area where there are a large number of trees less of the water ends up in rivers as trees, much like all plants, take in water to survive. It’s also worth pointing out that this strategy has a few other benefits to the local ecosystem such as creating new habitats for wildlife, filtering out impurities in the rainwater, and producing oxygen for us humans.
At the end of the day the government needs to act more directly to improve flood defences, and it would be untrue to say that without the investment of the state citizens could fund flood defences. However there are some things that we can do to prevent flooding such as reducing our carbon footprint and protesting against building on floodplains. As I outlined in a previous article if the government continues to pursue its ideological cutting of budgets the required investment in flood defences won’t take place. Maybe Tory heartlands that keep getting flooded should look to other parties rather than a government whose poor decision-making could well have worsened flooding by not constructing adequate defences.
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