Thursday, February 06, 2014

Memo to Cameron: Floods are actually in charge of us

There had to be a moment when a changed climate resulting from global warming caused persistent extreme weather. With horrific storms and floods in Britain and France, the worst drought in California since records began and temperatures over 40º in Australia, that moment has arrived.

David Cameron is now "in charge of the floods" – but in reality the floods are in charge of us.  
Thousands of people are without power, roads are impassable, the sea is encroaching into town centres and breaking down sea walls. Some villages have been cut off for weeks, all normal life put on hold. Yesterday police helicopters cruised the Somerset levels, warning people to leave their homes.

Cameron announced the ConDem government will contribute an extra £100m (literally a drop in the ocean) and stated "there is no limit to what this government will do - whether it is dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett (on the Somerset levels), whether it is support for our emergency services, whether it is fresh money for flood defences, whether it is action across the board, this Government will help those families and get this issue sorted".

But it can't be "sorted" in that sense. Quick fixes are of no use here.

In the medium term, Devon and Cornwall are going to be cut out of the rail network for as long as six months and probably longer if it proves unrealistic to rebuild along the coastal route.

In the longer term, there will be a massive speed up of coastal erosion. We have seen the beginnings of that this month. Villages that have existed since medieval times may become uninhabitable.

Dredging the Somerset levels is a disastrous idea. It will force streams and rivers into unnatural gorges, where water will rush towards the sea, spilling over every time it hits a pinch point - say a bridge. Villages and farms on the levels will see a slight diminution of floods but the water will burst river banks in towns like Taunton.

There is another way, which is to accept that during winter storms some farm land will be flooded. Adding huge quantities of organic matter to the fields - that is compost - would ensure they hold the water and drain well when the storms end. This would mean turning away from chemical farming.

We need to create open space in towns and cities. We need to stop building on flood plains and where have already done it, take urgent measures to improve drainage. The environment agency wants to regulate so new housing developments must be built with a soak-away - open land to hold excess water when rainfall is too much for sewer drains. But the construction industry opposes this simple measure, because they would not be able to crush quite so many homes on to every site.

The system of capitalist economy privileges private ownership and profit above all other considerations, and our market state governments have become simply another facet of this whole. The idea the state should pay for infrastructure has been rubbished for decades. The days when they could act in opposition to business interests in the public interest have long gone.

Climate change will increasingly create chaotic social conditions and we know that governments' first response to disorder is generally to crack down on the population. But they can't crack down on the weather - it's bigger than all of us.

It has become clear during the floods that people have had to rely on their own resilience and social solidarity to get through. A hands-off state has proved incompetent and unable to prepare for what was on the cards. This is true on a regional, national and global scale as well.

The lessons are pretty stark. Society’s resources have to be marshalled in a co-operative and democratic way so we can decide how best to respond to extreme weather, which is here to stay. Weather is now first and foremost a political question of power. At the moment, it’s in the hands of incompetent politicians and their developer friends. That's what has to change.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

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