The Blog

Why Man and Not Mother Nature Is Responsible for the Winter Floods

It's clear to me, and no doubt the thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by the winter floods that it's not just nature that is to blame for the now annual flood destruction, farmers and Government must also share in the responsibility. After all, we had been warned. And repeatedly.

Numerous credible sources have laid the decimation of the Somerset Levels and the flood damage to the Thames corridor firmly at the feet of the Environment Agency, National Famer's Union and DEFRA. And whilst all of these parties have had very different roles to play in the saga, it's clear to me that all have to accept some of the blame for the staggering levels of over farming on the Somerset Levels, and the subsequent mass flooding as a result of poor soil and river management.

In a recent article for The Guardian, George Monbiot, who has surveyed the damage first hand, comments: "Along the road from High Ham to Burrowbridge, which skirts Lake Paterson (formerly known as the Somerset Levels), you can see field after field of harvested maize. In some places the crop lines run straight down the hill and into the water. When it rains, the water and soil flash off into the lake. Seldom are cause and effect so visible.

"... Muddy water sluiced down the roads. A few score miles downstream it will reappear in people's living rooms. You can see the same thing happening across the Thames watershed: 184 miles of idiocy, perfectly calibrated to cause disaster."

It's clear to me, and no doubt the thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by the winter floods that it's not just nature that is to blame for the now annual flood destruction, farmers and Government must also share in the responsibility. After all, we had been warned. And repeatedly.

In December a scientific journal called Soil Use and Management published a paper warning of impending flooding disaster. In hindsight this paper predicted the very near future with almost pinpoint accuracy just weeks before the flooding took hold. The paper stated that surface water run-off in south-west England was reaching a critical point, and this was largely attributed to a massive change in the way the land is cultivated. At 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water - rather than naturally soaking into the ground, was now literally pouring off the land.

The farming of maize was identified as being a major culprit behind the winter floods thanks to an unprecedented rise in its production (a growth of 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970). Such a huge increase in the farming of arable land for the purposes of maize production is not to feed humans, but to feed livestock and, increasingly, the biofuel business, however that is a debate for another time, for now the simple fact of the matter is that the land cannot support such aggressive farming methods, leading to greater surface water run off as the soil breaks down, and thus increased flooding.

The paper went onto report that in three quarters of maize fields in the south-west, the soil structure has broken down to such an extent that they now contribute to flooding, as the soil is washed off the land along with the rain water, clogging up the rivers and ending up coating the roads, streets, driveways and front rooms of anything in its path.

Even the previous Government saw the problem coming urging in a report as early as 2005, which catalogued the potential impacts of changes in land use: ""Wherever possible avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas."

So who's to blame? Well obviously the answer to this is not a simple one, however George Monbiot, who I referenced above has a clear idea, commenting in his Guardian article on the topic: "Almost as soon as it took office, this government appointed a task force to investigate farming rules. Its chairman was the former director general of the National Farmers' Union. Who could have guessed that he would recommend "an entirely new approach to and culture of regulation ... Government must trust industry"? The task force's demands, embraced by Paterson (Sec of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), now look as stupid as Gordon Brown's speech to an audience of bankers in 2004: "In budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers."

I can't say I disagree with Mr Monbiot, particularly when you read the (somewhat baffling) particulars of the various farming policies implemented in recent years, however the complexities of the political "he said, she said" argument would fill a hefty tome and so for those of us who are interested in ensuring the Somerset Levels and Thames corridor do not experience this level of devastation ever again, we must focus on the solutions. After all it is clear that despite changing weather patterns providing milder wetter winters, much of the blame for the excessive flooding of recent months can be attributed to man, and not Mother Nature. And therefore the solution must be provided by us too.

Dredging has of course been heralded as the interim solution, with the Environment Agency coming under constant attack for not dredging the rivers sooner, however, dredging comes with its own problems, perfectly summed up by Mr Monbiot who describes it as like "trying to empty the bath while the taps are still running".

And of course much has been made of SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Solutions), which utilise 'natural' drainage solutions like ponds, 'green' roofs and grassland depressions called swales. Speaking as a man who has worked at the heavy manufacturing end of the flood management sector for decades you may expect me to be anti-SUDS in my approach to water management. However, my philosophy or approach to it is a lot more grounded than that, in that I recognise that SUDS have their place in certain urban environments as an ecological extension of manmade solutions.

However, when you consider the sheer volume of water that fell on the UK during the winter months and the sorry state of the land it fell on, SUDS were quite frankly never going to cut it as a viable alternative to manmade flooding solutions. After all, when the land is fully saturated the water has nowhere to go. Not unless it is piped away, or stored, by manmade means. Something there is going to be a much greater call for in years to come unless the Environment Agency, DEFRA and the NFU can get their act together and work symbiotically to help stem the flow of both water and soil from our arable land directly into our rivers as a result of the mismanagement of our farmland.

Simon Thomas is the managing director of Asset International, a leading manufacturer and the UK licencee of the Weholite range of large diameter plastic pipes. Asset International Ltd supplies bespoke designs to the water and construction industries from surface drainage to foul sewers and inter-process pipework