Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tale of a catastrophe foretold

Welcome to the weather of the 21st century. That’s the message from the floods that have overwhelmed whole areas of the West of England, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, without water and with damaged homes. And the government, despite many warnings, is totally unprepared for the consequences of a Hurricane Katrina-New Orleans type of event. Then people scoffed at how incompetent the American authorities were in dealing with the aftermath of an unprecedented hurricane. Now the British state has demonstrated that it has no real plans to cope with similar events, which are inextricably linked to climate change, and that the emergency services have been overwhelmed.

Prime Minister Brown has said there will be a "review", but the New Labour government has repeatedly ignored warnings about what could happen. It has emerged that the government was warned in two separate reports that the plans in place to tackle flood risks were "complex, confusing and distressing for the public". In July 2004 the government said it needed to improve co-ordination between water companies, councils and the Environment Agency; then in 2005, the government also agreed to "work towards giving" the agency "an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks". Nothing happened. Actually, something did take place. The government cut the Environment Agency’s budget, despite pleas that this would weaken flood defence work. As Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The government has been looking at an integrated approach for more than three years, but did not act on its own analysis in 2005. Ministers have been in and out of the revolving door at the department, and now we are to have another review to look at exactly the same issues again." Yesterday the government promised an extra £200m to the Environment Agency over the next three years, but the agency has said that at least £1000m a year is needed.

The floods are the worst in history, exceeding the spring of 1947 – themselves said to be the worst for 200 years - when a hard winter was followed by a rapid thaw. "We have not seen flooding of this magnitude before," said the agency yesterday. "The benchmark was 1947, and this has already exceeded it." The floods were caused by a single day’s rainfall, which delivered a month’s worth in 24 hours. Extreme weather is a feature of climate change resulting from global warming. The Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, in a paper published this week, identifies "human fingerprint" in rainfall increases in recent decades in the Northern hemisphere. Brown has acknowledged that the floods crisis is probably linked to climate change. But his response is limited to improving drains and flood defences. In other words, the message is: Adapt and survive. This is a hopeless position. All the flood defences in the world will not stop low-lying areas near rivers being overwhelmed by monsoon-type events like those seen in the North last month and the West of England last week. Action to halt global warming has to start now, not tomorrow.

An emergency action plan has to include:
  • an end to building in flood plains and concreting over fields and gardens
  • rationalisation of existing use of housing and buildings, use of empty properties
  • massive research and development of alternative fuel and power systems
  • overhaul of public transport to provide cheap and reliable bus, rail, and water services
  • upper limit on airmiles and end to airport expansion
  • food production and transport to be made ecologically sustainable
  • protection of trees and green areas

Come to tonight’s open forum, Reject greenwash - compost the corporations! 6.30pm at the Diorama Arts Centre, to discuss these issues.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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