Published On: Tue, Feb 25th, 2020

Ciara and Dennis – a Preventable Menace

While people all around the country were coming to terms with the damage caused by February’s Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis was on its way to double their trouble. The two storms hit the UK in quick succession with devastating impact.

Some areas in Cumbria experienced more than a month’s worth of rain in the space of two days, only to be followed by another storm a week later. Storm Dennis unleashed heavy rainfall onto already saturated soil and overloaded waterways, causing rivers to burst their banks and sewers to overspill.

Towns were flooded in Lancashire, Cumbria, West Yorkshire, Wales and Southern Scotland, leaving half a million people without power. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been wrecked by flooding. Many residents had to completely abandon their homes and in some cases had to be rescued by boat.

According to a senior meteorologist at the Met office, Storm Ciara alone was “probably the biggest storm this century” in terms of the range of areas affected. The combined impact of the two storms was quoted at around £15 billion of damage.

While extreme weather events such as these are unavoidable – although they are certainly exacerbated by the effects of climate change – there is widespread anger at the lack of infrastructure and investment in place to prevent such devastating consequences to people’s lives. No wonder Boris Johnson has not been sighted anywhere, instead hiding away in his country retreat.

Anger and suffering

One of the worst affected places was Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire. The village has experienced severe flooding three times in the last 8 years. Residents feel that this untenable living situation is being completely overlooked. A local resident was quoted in the Guardian: “People are furious…. we are dealing with major human errors”.

Already slow off the mark, the council and the Environment Agency had outsourced the construction and improvement of flood defences for the area in 2018. But when the recent storms arrived, the works were found to be far behind schedule. To make matters worse, the previous defences were no longer of any use as a 5 metre-wide hole had been made in the flood wall, channelling the overspill from the River Calder straight into the village.

This is not an isolated case. In November last year, the Tory election campaign got off to a miserable start, as Boris Johnson found himself all over the news, being angrily confronted by flood victims in South Yorkshire. This anger is well placed. In 2010, the Tories made significant cuts to funding for flood defences, as part of their lethal austerity programme. They only restored the funding as knee jerk reaction to a series of serious floods in the winter of 2013-14.

Behind the Times

The Tories’ approach to flood defence is, like everything else under the chaos of the market economy, completely unplanned, outdated and not carried out in the interests of the most vulnerable. Despite the economy swimming in unused wealth, only 1% of the UK infrastructure spending is set to go towards flood defences, as such investment is simply not profitable. And of that paltry investment, a whole third is to be allocated to London and the South East.

Experts are arguing that a far more holistic and far sighted approach is needed. ‘Hard flood defences’ such as walls and concrete barriers only serve to divert flooding away from ‘high priority’ areas, into other areas deemed less valuable.

In the last 10 to 15 years engineers have completely revolutionised their approach to flood defence; emphasising the importance of ‘natural flood defences’ and ‘Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems’. The former involves using reservoirs, wetlands, and green spaces in upland areas to act as water stores, preventing severe flooding in downstream areas. This approach would also serve to improve biodiversity and prevent water shortages in dryer periods; an important example of the harmonisation of humans with our natural environment that could be worked towards in a socialist planned economy.

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Failures of the Market

To the frustration of such engineers however, this is not seen in practice, as the capitalist system does not allow for such planning. As Dr Liz Sharpe from the University of Sheffield wrote; “at present it is nobody’s responsibility to look at these benefits together and incentivise changes to water management on private land”.

Instead, the reality is that between 2001 to 2014, 12 per cent of all housing developments have been built on areas that experience regular flooding. So long as they can make a profit, nothing else matters to the shareholders of the house building companies.

Not only does this put the residents in a vulnerable situation, but it exacerbates the problem further. By covering some of the wettest areas of the country with paving stones and concrete (known as ‘hardscaping’), surface-runoff from rainfall is massively increased, and therefore so is the risk of flooding further downstream.

A member of Calderdale council, one of the worst hit areas in the recent period, told the Guardian; “We are very clear we need more tree planting and more slow-the-flow type measures on the hillside as a whole… But the grouse moors are a challenge because they are in private ownership. We need more support from all the landowners, but particularly the big ones.”

It should come as no surprise that the main barrier to any progress in this field is once again the question of private property. The wealth to invest in flood defence infrastructure exists, but it is not profitable to do so. It is known how to plan development in harmony with the environment, but the anarchy of the market stands in the way.

The pleas from such councils, scientists, and residents as those quoted above will therefore undoubtedly fall on deaf ears. Until the land and the big monopolies are nationalised and the economy can be planned by workers in their own interests, the plight of Britain’s flood victims is only set to continue.

Socialist Appeal

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