This winter has seen the worst flooding that the North West of England has ever experienced. Cumbrian villages and towns like Kendal, Keswick, Appleby, Cockermouth and Carlisle were flooded multiple times over the Christmas period and their citizens had to be evacuated. Rivers in Lancashire hit record levels. Major cities like Lancaster, Manchester, Leeds and York were affected. Throughout Lancashire, Yorkshire, Dumfriesshire and Cumbria homes were left flooded and without power.
This is not the first time in the past ten years a huge area of the UK has been hit by flooding, and nor will it be the last. In addition to the areas described above, Cornwall, Wales and the English counties on its border, Northumbria and the Scottish Borders have all experienced or are susceptible to the terrible flooding we have had in the north west this past month.
It goes without saying that this flooding is almost certainly a man-made disaster. Looking at the big picture, this December is one of the warmest on record, and this may have aided the torrential rainfall (which would have at worst fallen as heavy snowfall if it had been colder). The flooding is therefore a symptom of our changing climate, and a no doubt a terrible harbinger of things to come (at this point it’s worth reminding yourself about the UK government’s atrocious record on climate change prevention).
Even taking climate change into account, however, the attitude to flood prevention has been dismal. This year the rising water levels easily cleared the so-called flood defences, indicating they can only ever be part of the solution in preventing further damage to our towns and cities. Far more important is the way we treat our countryside to prevent water levels getting that high in the first place.
Evidence suggests that having more trees and other foliage around waterways means there’s less rainwater falling into rivers because it is absorbed by the surrounding plants. Counterproductively, we currently give money to farmers to keep their land free of trees. In addition, dredging (the process of clearing the bed of a river of sediment) is also contributing to the flooding of towns and villages. Leaving rivers in their natural state means flooding takes place further upstream — normally on farmland. While this is not ideal — and help should be given to farmers who have problems with flooding — the alternative of keeping farmland dry by pushing the floodwater downstream to devastate towns and villages is not sustainable.
Hopefully 2016 will be the year when the UK government stops prioritising the need of farmers over the need of local communities and acts decisively to prevent this kind of mass flooding from ever happening again. If it doesn’t, next winter could see everywhere from Boscastle to Bonchester Bridge underwater.
Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.