Flooding and the spectre of climate change


As I type these words, water is once again pouring into homes and businesses in Glenridding, a small village in the Lake District. Catastrophic storms at the weekend dealt the first blow, but the rain is back and the waters are rising. We are living in remarkable and scary times.

My first direct experience of flooding came at an early age. As a child living in rural Cambridgeshire, our village was often disrupted by flooding. The Bourn Brook would burst its banks, leading to a day off school. We were higher up the hill so never directly affected, and although it must have been awful for the people who lived nearer the water I look back on these events as exciting and exotic. I have memories of stomping through the flood waters in wellington boots, and even on one occasion being ‘rescued’ from school by a friend’s dad in his tractor. It was great fun.

Later, when I moved to the Suffolk coast, flooding took on a different and more sinister meaning. Forces beyond human control sculpted the flat coastline in sudden, savage events: storms that transported thousands of tons of shingle from here to there overnight, building up great ridges of raw, new terrain and hollowing out the ground beneath houses or roads. Erosion and the flooding of low-lying marshes went hand in hand. I witnessed the government’s failure to protect the coastline, and for the first time I realised that protecting land against water was either fantastically expensive, impractical, or simply not a priority for the powers that be. I developed a healthy respect for the sea but, again, I was not directly affected by these events.

Only last year did the spectre of flooding come right up to my doorstep.

A little water goes a long way

My partner, Hannah, is a florist. She works hard to maintain a business in the village, and it can be surprisingly tough at times: the work is more physical than you might expect, and she often has to get up in the early hours of the morning to go in search of stock at the wholesalers. She loves her work and is good at it, but it can be hard.

In August 2014 her shop flooded.

She went to work one morning and found items of stock floating on a layer of scummy water, several inches deep. There had been a blockage just up the hill and sewage had backed up the toilet in the premises, bursting through the manhole cover for good measure.

It stank. I’ll remember that smell for a long time. As we rescued items from the disgusting liquid that had invaded every corner of her business, Hannah wondered how she would ever re-build, how she could get past this. Although only a few inches deep, the water had caused major damage and significant loss of stock.

It took weeks, but she recovered. Then a second flood arrived on Boxing Day after heavy rains. This time the ancient wooden floorboards, saturated with sewage, had to be ripped up and replaced. She was closed for many weeks. Recovery took even longer.

The point I’m trying to make here is that these floods, although relatively minor compared to the devastation we’ve seen in the Lake District, caused significant stress, anxiety, and material disruption. They resulted in weeks of closure, loss of earnings, endless wrangling with the water board to get them to pay compensation, arguments and negotiations with the insurance company. Since the date of the first flood it’s arguable that things weren’t back to normal for almost a year.

Now think about how long it’s going to take people and businesses in the Lake District to recover. Every flood is a disaster for someone, but the events of the last few days have been nothing short of a catastrophe.

The elephant in the room

We are living on a warming planet.

Carbon Dioxide emissions are soaring, and the consensus of scientific opinion agrees that this will result in more extreme and unpredictable weather in the future. Climate change is real. In the UK, its effects can already be felt; everyone has noticed that extreme weather events, such as the ‘once in a thousand years‘ Cumbria floods of 2009, are becoming more frequent. The breaking of weather records now seems to be a commonplace event.

Sea levels are rising, population is increasing, and we live on an island. This intersection of facts is a troubling one.

I think the Cumbria floods of 2015 should be a wake-up call for the government. Although the masters of the UK have proven many times they care little for the environmental health of the country (or indeed the world), perhaps the vast expense of rebuilding areas devastated by these floods will give them pause for thought. And maybe it’s time to start listening to people like George Monbiot, who has plenty to say about the failings of government to prevent these disasters. I believe there is room for protecting the fragile environment and preventing human disasters from unfolding.

We build on flood plains, dredge and re-route rivers, cut woodland from the hills, soak our land in chemicals, kill the ecology of waterways. Is it any wonder that we have to suffer the consequences?

We’re like the frog in a beaker of water, being steadily warmed until it boils to death. When I’m feeling pessimistic I wonder if humanity is capable of saving itself from the times ahead. The pieces are all there, but somehow we keep failing to put them together and actually do something for the good of humanity and the planet we live on.

In the meantime, don’t abandon Cumbria. Help if you can. There are a number of funds being set up to accept donations – and keep visiting the area. too. It’s a beautiful part of the world and the people who live there don’t deserve the consequences of Storm Desmond.

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