Monday, 10 February 2014

On the Levels

It is quite interesting watching the news about the flooding on the Somerset levels, the way in which any pressure groups like her Majesties loyal Opposition, Green Peace, StopHS2 the NFU will use it as a rallying cry for their cause, some of them may actually have a connection and something constructive to say but usually that is put in the background as the opportunity is taken to insert something far higher up the organisations agenda.
You would hope the journalists would be wise to this and perhaps ask some penetrating questions about some of the more outrageous claims, but no, that would spoil the sensation, make the overall story less newsworthy.
The Levels are, according to Wikipedia, "a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area". They're several clues words in that phrase that suggest that the area over time been regularly flooded. In medieval times all the  buildings would have been built on the highest ground to minimise flooding, and those that weren't would have been expected to on a regular basis.
Large parts of the land have been reclaimed since the Middle Ages, and have in common with most other wet areas in Western Europe, the greatest threat to life was not the flooding, but Malaria, which caused a high death toll in marshes up to the beginning of the 20th century. The great drive for drainage was in part driven by a need to reduce the malaria threat not simply to increase agricultural land. In the past areas like the levels and the Fens would have been very productive though wetlands, with great freshwater fisheries and water fowl. They provide hideouts for like of King Alfred in the 8 century, while the fens later hid Hereward the Wake.
It is very doubtful that even at the height of the drainage that the Levels would have coped with this year rain much better than they have, and the defences remain very close to that height. We heard that 6 months ago the NFU was calling for the rivers to be dredged and warning of disaster, but the press never asks where they also doing it 18 months ago, in fact have they been doing it every you since they were formed.
Keeping the water at bay is an impossible task, it would be far easier and cheaper to build only on the highest land, and where there is no high land to build on stilts.
Stilt houses are nothing new to the UK, in the days before the Romans building on stilts in the middle of a lake provided protection not from water but from the next tribe and wild animals.
If needed earthworks around existing builds will be cheaper than keeping in the rivers. Yes, it means that people may have to use boats, it means they may have to  have their own power generation ability and some food storage over the winter but this is what living in the country used to be about. There are helicopters for emergencies, radios and mobile phones for communication and even some crops that will survive this, or others that will grow after the flooding season is finished.
If we were present with the broads, fens, levels or moss in its original state today what would we do. We would be less worried about disease and fully able to decide what is the most productive form that the levels can take for us. In that situation, I doubt that we would opt for the whole scale drainage schemes our ancestors did. We would almost certainly reclaim some, preserve other bits and in general far more gentle mange the landscape.
We should take the opportunity to fall back from our over controlling desire and make the levels more robust under field conditions and try to find ways of taking advantage of those floods. I doubt that it can be like the Nile where a lack of flood is a disaster, but it can be at least neutral and it should not come as a surprise. Calling it a disaster is hyping it too much, no one has died (yet) over the next few years the defences of properties need to be built up, not the containment of rivers. The planning rules need to be changed to ensure that everything built can handle being flooded and continue to perform its job.


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