UK floods causing major, necessary re-think

28th Mar 2014

Sarah Sakeena Marshall

The unprecedented winter floods in the UK have garnered a variety of responses due to their sheer scale; leaving thousands without power and exceedingly angry due to the perception that the Government has not done nearly enough. From the military being brought in to assess damages, to farmers potentially receiving grants only when a host of conditions are met, the floods have caused a major rethink to flood defences and land management related to farming, as well as the usual climate change culpability debate.

Soil erosion is a major factor in the floods, which can be caused by growing certain crops on vulnerable soils and at a slope as well as leaving certain lands bare. Maize, or corn, is considered the main offender. According to the BBC’s Environmental Analyst, Roger Harrabin, “Some experts want maize to be banned from steep slopes altogether because its bare rows contribute so much to flooding and silt.” Farmers are heartily resisting conditional grant allocation and simply want vulnerable soils studied to see about switching over to hardier types.

The heavy machinery used on conventional large-scale farms also compacts the soil preventing water percolation, and thus more runoff into lakes and rivers.

Another serious factor in the floods is the lack of England’s peat bogs, which the Government historically paid farmers to drain and essentially destroy. They are now rethinking that logic, as peat is extremely water absorbent. In fact, peat can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in water. This light bulb of realisation may be coming a bit late, as thousands have had their homes flooded and lost power in the south of England and are angry that the Government has not done enough to assist in their plight; rail lines were even shut down in Somerset for more than 24 hours one weekend.

The cost in damages is skyrocketing daily, but some actually see a silver lining in this regard, because many industries are being forced to hire more staff to deal with the mess. The construction industry alone could see a £250m boost, according to estimates by Manpower recruitment firm. Still, the damage has got so bad that the military has been brought in to assess 150,000 flood defences in five weeks, an undertaking that would normally take much longer.

The longstanding argument about climate change being the sole culprit continues, yet climate change is more so thought to exacerbate natural disasters; it is much more difficult to directly link climate change to specific weather events. The same factors contributing to the floods have contributed to climate change for decades. Farming causes major greenhouse gas emissions due to gas guzzling farming equipment, deforestation to make way for the farmland, and fertilizer and pesticide usage.

Regardless of whether a direct link can be made, the fact stands that warmer air holds more moisture and can thus lead to more intense rainfall events.

At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that we are clearly not ahead of the curve with our current ways of doing things. There is no anticipating what extreme weather events will leave our shelter, food, and water supplies vulnerable. Sustainable mitigation practices are essential, especially when it comes to farming. One thing is certain; the residents dealing with extreme flooding events cannot afford to deal with delayed responses from officials. The fact that this disaster has overwhelmed response teams exposes a lack of preparedness in the system.

As much as farmers are resisting regulation, withholding funds may be the fastest way to ensure compliance for new, more sustainable standards. Economic boosts are often seen as solely positive, but are we so desperate that we welcome disasters to simply get paid to clean them up?

Meanwhile, lives and livelihoods are at risk. Upon analyzing such thought processes, it is apparent that they come from a short-term thinking. Riding on the wave of short bursts of economic productivity got us in this mess in the first place; balance must be restored in the system if we are to truly mitigate such disasters and prevent those of similar magnitude in the future. If we do not think in terms beyond our own generation, there will unfortunately be nothing left for our children except soggy, unusable, chemical-ridden land.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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