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Flooding Is Climate Change In Action - We Need To Work With Nature To Mitigate Its Impacts

23/11/2016 15:50
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Storm Angus has whipped across the country flooding homes, felling trees and closing roads. Once again nature has exerted its power, terrifying those whose homes lie in its path. But this is more than natural forces; this is climate change in action and is becoming a common feature of our winters. We cannot kick against it. We must look to nature's energies for help.

Using natural systems to slow the flow

The traditional approach to dealing with floods - with drainage and straightened rivers to channel water quickly to the sea - is no longer effective in many settings, especially in an era of increasingly intensive rainfall brought about by climate change. In East Devon, for example, 50mm of rain fell in just 24 hours - almost half the month's average rainfall in one deluge. When areas are hit with exceptionally high rainfall like this, trying to channel this volume of water to the sea as quickly as possible places rivers under enormous stress - and places the communities around them in danger. When it comes to protecting homes, we have been making the wrong choices - we must recognise that now before any more families lose their homes to flooding.

If we are serious about protecting people we must abandon the temptation to do battle with nature and start to work with natural systems instead. If we work holistically with whole catchment areas of land we can slow the flow of water and stop rivers bursting their banks. We must protect and enhance peat bogs and wetlands which, when restored to their natural states, soak up water and stop it flowing over land to rivers and causing floods downstream. Planting trees has a very similar effect, and research for the Environment Agency earlier this year found that planting trees around rivers can reduce flooding in towns by one fifth.

By restoring natural river courses, which meander through the countryside, we can slow the flow and enable the land to absorb some of the water as it does so. Leaky dams - blockages of logs and sticks in streams - work in a similar way causing mini floods upstream and in doing so relieve the pressure further along the watercourse where it is vulnerable to worse flooding.

In Gloucestershire Green councillor Sarah Lunnon led her council in harnessing nature to tackle floods, with more than 60 natural flood defences constructed under the a Sustainable Drainage System run by local councils and the Environment Agency. And while it is important to protect land like peat bogs which soak up water, it is essential we stop building on floodplains.

Autumn statement must promise the earth not destroy it

It is exactly this sort of infrastructure I want to see the Chancellor announce in today's Autumn Statement - real investment that matches the Government's promise to tackle flooding. I won't hold my breath though. When Caroline Lucas MP asked DEFRA Under-Secretary, Dr Thérèse Coffey MP what funding has been allocated to natural flood management projects this year, the answer was, none. Greens say that we need to see £15 billion invested in flood defences over the next five years.

We will also be failing vulnerable communities if we do not take drastic action to tackle the cause of the floods we have experienced over successive winters. Without urgent global action to tackle climate change we will blow the 1.5 degree target within years. Yet in the UK, recent decisions on renewables - specifically undermining onshore wind and solar - and on transport - more runways and roads - mean we are failing in our duty to contribute to the global effort on climate.

The Green Party have this week launched our own investment plan, which places the urgency of tackling climate change as the guiding principle behind a £200billion infrastructure investment programme. The flagship investment would be a massive, labour-intensive free nationwide home retrofit insulation programme, concentrating particularly on areas where fuel poverty is most serious. This would insulate nine million homes over a five-year period, taking at least two million homes out of fuel poverty, and creating well over 100,000 jobs.

Time to end hard hat posturing

The government must ditch the hard hat posturing. We reject an investment policy based on the three Hs - Hinkley, HS2, and Heathrow - which are vanity projects that do not meet our national or regional needs in the 21st century and will make it impossible to halt rising global temperatures - and the extreme weather that brings.

The choices and investment decisions we make now will determine whether or not a liveable planet is safeguarded for future generations. Tackling climate change and mitigating floods is a chance to show that we can work with nature, harnessing its energies for the good of the planet and its people, rather than hoping we can solve our environmental problems by kicking against it.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West and is author of Greening Brexit: The Need for Transitional Investment

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