F for flooding?

Did the UK’s authorities fail its citizens over the December 2015 floods? Yes, sadly I think they did, and that’s what we’ll explore in our first Waterstink post of 2016.

Before tackling this though, two quick things. First, many people I know locally were affected by the Boxing Day 2015 flooding in particular. And as I write the danger of further flooding is again looming. I’m going to try to write as sensitively as possible, and I also don’t claim to have the final word here; there’s still a lot happening, and there are months of recovery ahead for many…

Second, I apologise for being so tardy! I’m very late wishing you a happy new year and I’m bringing you a different topic than originally planned. Based on our recent MOOC filming I was going to look at the surprisingly different information ‘treatment’ potential of some US water bills versus the UK ones I get from Yorkshire Water. Water regulation in the UK seems to be behind this, and there are interesting implications for sustainability; but that will have to wait.

To say events rather overtook my plans is an understatement. The UK’s ‘biblical proportions’ Boxing Day 2015 floods thankfully touched us only very lightly, but they did affect a great very many people, homes and businesses all around us. The extreme weather also affected communities to the East of us, such as Leeds and York, and hit Scotland (several times) and Northern Ireland (again, multiple times). I can’t recall so much of the country (an estimated 16,000 homes) being so simultaneously and significantly affected by flooding; it’s been truly shocking.

Photo: Fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.
Photo: Some fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.

River levels near us reached an extremely high level around Boxing Day 2015, as shown by the screenshot of data for our local monitoring station below:

Photo: Water levels in a nearby river were well above typical. Source: http://www.gauge.map.co.uk
Photo: Water levels in a nearby river reached well above their typical range. Source: http://www.gauge.map.co.uk

Official national data recently released have also confirmed my subjective, local impressions about how bad the weather conditions have been. The Met Office has described December 2015 as ‘an exceptional and record-breaking month‘, with:

  • A ‘provisional UK mean temperature‘ of 7.9C;
  • This being ‘4.1 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average‘;
  • Consequently making for ‘the warmest December in a series from 1910‘;
  • And even ‘1.0 °C warmer than the previous warmest December‘; and
  • Furthermore ‘also easily the warmest December in the Central England temperature (CET) series from 1659‘ (source: Met Office).

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has recently released a briefing note stating that December 2015 was:

‘[A]n extraordinary month in both meteorological and hydrological terms, with some of the most widespread and severe flooding witnessed in the UK. … persistent unsettled weather (including the named storms ‘Desmond’, ‘Eva’ and ‘Frank’) …. [caused] widespread and repeated flooding, bringing significant disruption to transport, utilities and agriculture and flooding over 16,000 homes in England alone. … The spatial scale of sustained very high flows was remarkable; many large catchments in northern Britain recorded their highest ever peak flows and/or monthly mean flows.’

The trend detailed in this briefing is also clear in the Met Office’s graph for the UK in December 2015:

Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.
Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.

Bringing things back to our local level, it’s worth quickly mentioning what happened with us. Well, a few days before Christmas I was to head towards London to sing with a national choir I’m in; my other option was to host a visiting musician from California (whom I’d met during my March 2015 trip to talk about our water MOOC at the Coursera partners conference).

Fortunately I decided not to be away from home and on 24 December picked up our musician friend. We had a rather uneventful drive back through Rochdale, Littleborough, Walsden and Todmorden. A few days later I planned also to re-unite him with an old friend so we’d head on through Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, towards Luddenden Foot. Before Boxing Day 2015 you’d be easily forgiven for never having heard of these places; as of now I imagine most people in the UK are aware of at least some of them, and have most likely seen this kind of terrible footage:

There were so many photographs of the devastation to homes and businesses that I don’t really want to my community’s misery by voyeuristically pasting them up here. Suffice to say I think just this one local shot below in essence captures how bad it was (this shot is by Craig Shaw Photography):

Photo: Flood water levels in Hebden Bridge, well above flood gate defences. Source: Craig
Photo: Flood water levels on the main road through Hebden Bridge reached well above the protection offered by flood gate defences. Source: Craig Shaw Photography.

You can hopefully see there just how high the flood water levels were, and how there was little hope of escaping them in parts of our community.

We were only briefly cut off on Boxing Day by the floods. A beck to the one side of our street breached its grit trap and culvert and started carving out pieces of nearby tarmac. Our street exit also blocked whilst helpful locals rushed out to clear blocked drains that threatened to leave our corner shop inundated. The Police arrived in a jeep and several more roads were closed off due to a damaged bridge, road subsidence, and road surface damage from landslides off nearby hills. The strangest experience though was the eerie blue sky the next day, and just how little visible evidence remained, on the surface at least, of the havoc wrought the day before:

Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert; right, the next day with eerie blue skies.
Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert, spilling out onto the main road; right, the next day, superficially all clear under an eerie blue sky.

The most frustrating thing, and again I’ve talked about this before, was the fragmentation of flooding responsibilities. I could see certain things unfolding and wanted to let the relevant authorities know; of course though I also didn’t want to divert resources from people who needed it far more than we did at the time! But it was Boxing Day so many services were unstaffed and unavailable, in spite of several emergency arrangements having been put in place.

The most heartening thing from these events, I must say, has been the local community response to the flooding. A Calder Valley Flood Support Facebook Group coordinated support for flooding victims and interaction with various authorities, and has been fundraising and many other positive and helpful things (even including organising people to guard against potential looters in the area… yes, I know, it’s vile to think of people preying on the vulnerable at times like this). Local volunteers were joined by others from far and wide, including from various faith groups, restoring ‘communities and faith in humanity‘. Others turned their energy to lift spirits with efforts such as this heartwarming video about the floods (with over 30,000 views at the time of writing):

Local volunteers and communities spared no efforts. But looking past this, local and national outcry did nevertheless surface about the UK’s flooding policies, planning and practices. Some made the link between local flooding incidence and apparent global inaction on climate change. Others looked back at an alleged history of inaction on land management on the moors above towns like Hebden Bridge that exacerbates flood risk (a point picked up again a few days ago on the BBC). Local councils reported pushing flood issues to the top of their agenda. Nationally there was questioning of whether’s the UK’s flood defences (and flood defence spending) were ‘fit for purpose’ and various flooding-related rows led to the resignation of the Chairman of the Environment Agency.

As Prime Minister David Cameron was heckled in York alongside estimates of £5bn cost from the floods (later revised down to around £1.3bn), and arguments raged over whether military spending or overseas aid should be ‘raided’ to prop up flood resilience budgets, George Monbiot launched into probably the most direct and eloquent criticism of the apparent overall mess of flood-related planning and policy in the UK. He penned a piece titled ‘This flood was not only forecast – it was publicly subsidised’, highlighting that:

  • Upstream land management policies, planning and practices, and landowner-influenced public drainage boards, ‘often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream‘;
  • [S]traightening, embanking and dredging rivers … [tends to] accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely‘;
  • Warnings about the danger of ‘drainage and burning of the grouse moors upstream‘, funded by farm subsidies, and reducing the water holding capacity of ‘bogs and deep vegetation of the moors‘ had been ‘actively disregarded‘;
  • The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly‘;
  • We need ‘more trees in the hills, and should let our rivers meander once more‘ to reduce the flow into populated areas; and
  • We’ve had a lamentable overall UK flood ‘strategy’ that has played out in an ‘orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: [with] grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging‘.

So far there has been a trickle of policy response to the emphatic points Monbiot raised (such as efforts to provide ‘funds for farmers who fight flooding‘). But given the probable pattern for our changing UK climate is exactly the kind of warmer, wetter winters, with sharper rainfall events that we have just experienced, it seems clear that:

  • Communities expect more to be done to prevent flooding; and
  • ‘Flood resilience’ likely needs re-thought from the ground up.

Things failed so seriously, and in so many places within such a short period at the tail end of 2015, that the UK’s flood-related planning, policy and strategy cannot be left as the under-funded, fragmented and piecemeal, party political football it has been for so long. There must now be far more strategic attention to land use management and permitting, to evidence-based flood defences (natural and constructed), to maintenance of storm drainage infrastructure, to evidence-based deployment of appropriate watercourse modification (dredging, meandering), and to support for new designs, re-designs and retrofitting of homes, businesses and landscapes in flood prone areas of the UK.

Having been peripherally involved in some water policy and regulation issues in the UK in the past, I’m aware that this process will be slow and long. Continued pressure and momentum will be essential along the way.I hope we’re up to the challenge, and that flood-related impacts like the ones we’ve just seen can be successfully averted in future.

Duncan Thomas

Update: Just as I was due to post this piece up, another positive local effort happened; I was privileged to take part in Todmorden Choral Society’s repeat performance of Handel’s Messiah. Participants waived their usual fees and all proceeds will go to our local Calderdale Flood Relief Fund. Great stuff!

Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!
Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!


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