Here comes the flood

Posted on March 8th 2016

by Paul Young

Recent flooding in the Scotland and north of England has called into question our ability to cope with what seems to be larger more frequent rainfall events and increasing volumes of water threatening people, houses and businesses near our rivers.  The rising water has put many engineered flood defence schemes to the test and in some instances they have failed.

Whether you’re a climate change sceptic or a follower of the ‘doomsday scenario’,  of run away global temperatures, I’m willing to take bets that what we are experiencing now is a taster for more extreme events to come.  This will test our resilience for our towns and cities to cope.

Calls for additional funding to quickly target those areas worst hit have been countered by voices requesting a wider review of the effectiveness of such ‘flood defence schemes’ within our towns and cities.

Many of these voices have focussed their attention upstream of the areas of flooding to the wider catchment. They are calling for a more holistic approach to the flooding issue by changing the way we manage some areas of land.

In some instances agricultural and forestry ‘improvements’ such as levies, bunds and drainage in the wider catchment has been criticised, in some quarters, for exacerbated the flooding problems downstream.

The demand to restore the historic floodplains upstream of major towns and cities, back to the river, is increasingly gaining support. The current voices echo similar calls in the 90s when Perth and Glasgow experience major flood events and the recent floods in southern England in the winter of 2013-14 which led to much finger pointing at government agencies.

Whilst here in Scotland we are getting better at providing early warnings to our communities ahead of potential flood events,  it seems to me we need to be more focussed at building cross agency co-operation in adopting a more resilient approach to land management in the wider catchment to reduce flooding. Signs are that this may change.

With calls from engineers, hydrologists, government agencies, planners and the environmental sector for strategic reviews of land management, there is a growing willingness to look at the use cost benefit analysis to improve outcomes.

Discussion are being opened up on incentivising land managers in the wider catchment for ‘riparian restoration’ with the aim to slow runoff , store larger volumes of water for longer and reduce flood events downstream. From an ecological point of view too, this is to be welcomed.

This approach does offer the prospect of reversing the loss of large areas of wetland and native woodland, within our countryside, with the benefits to biodiversity that would inevitably arise.

In this context there may even be room for the beaver to play a keystone role.

Although there is a natural resistance to change,  particularly as land owners and managers are often tied into incentive schemes,  there is a growing optimism that this dialogue may evolve into a more robust and resilient strategy minimise the impact of flooding. In some places this is already happening.

This approach aims to work with our river systems rather than fighting against them or attempting to hold back the flood by building the walls even higher.  This should bring wider community and nature conservation benefits.

In the meantime we continue to invest in flood defences with no small measure of success.  It is now evident, when it comes to our climate, that the past is no guide to the future uncertainty associated with climate change. We now need to establish a wider consensus to build resilience into the wider catchment to protect life and property.

Who knows maybe the return of beavers to the Scottish landscape, currently being considered by the Scottish government following a trail introduction at Knapdale in Argyll, will signal that we are now ready to allow nature to give us a helping hand in tackling the flooding problem.