A report published by a UK MPs' cross party committee criticises Westminster's flood management policy for its lack of an integrated catchment approach. The MPs recommend alternative strategies to those currently employed, including natural flood defences such as tree planting, so-called leaky dams and temporary flooding of farmland during high-risk deluges. The National Farmers' Union and Department of Environment and Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are to be consulted on suitable strategies to minimise impact on productivity and to devise incentives to recompense affected farmers.
The report states that: “Current flood risk management structures are fragmented, inefficient and ineffective, and although there are many examples of successful local partnerships, current arrangements do not encourage widespread use of catchment scale approaches.” It recommends that natural management practises be adopted, “such as installation of leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management, alongside other measures.”
Further recommendations include making developers who break planning regulations (by building in flood-prone areas) liable for flooding costs, and a grant scheme for small businesses who cannot afford flooding insurance “to install resilience measures.”
According to the report, over five million people in the UK live in flood-prone districts and as climate change takes hold, peak river flows in some places are predicted to double by 2070. The winter of 2015-16 broke rainfall records and flood damage is estimated to have cost £5 billion. Natural dissipation patterns have been disrupted by artificial land drainage, deforestation and urban development, meaning more water reaches rivers at higher rates than before. As a result, the report recommends that certain areas of farmland be designated flood control areas where excess water can be stored to alleviate flooding downstream.
The report explains:
“Storing water on farmland can provide a cost-effective means of reducing flood risk, but farmers are naturally wary of allowing their land to be out of production for long periods. Defra should put flood risk management at the centre of any new support schemes for farmers which replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) framework. The Department must consult by July 2017 on an incentive scheme to pay farmers to allow short-term or long-term storage of flood water on appropriate land. As a precursor to this, the National Farmers’ Union should work with farmers to develop by the end of 2016 a detailed model for calculating the value to communities of land management that reduces flood risk. This model must demonstrate how storage methods can be used which have a low impact on farm productivity.”
With regard to dredging, the report acknowledges the value of cleaning out rivers in certain areas and at certain times, but says that dredging is not always the answer to flood prevention.
“We received evidence from those such as the Flood Prevention Society who criticised the Environment Agency for giving inadequate consideration to dredging. However, flood risk can be increased in some places when water is moved more quickly downstream. Further, in some circumstances dredging may not be effective in speeding up water flows: for example, Aviva [Insurance Company] told us that dredging generally had “little or no benefit” for flood risk. Our Special Advisers also cautioned that dredging natural rivers is unlikely to prove beneficial as a river will return to its natural state over time.”
The report contradicts the received wisdom that the best way to manage flooding is to transfer water from uplands to the sea as quickly as possible, using arterial drainage and by increasing river capacity through dredging. With the unprecedented rainfall of the last few years and more predicted to come, this method is prohibitively expensive and unequal to the task. Successful experiments in natural flood controls in Pickering, Yorkshire and Holnicote, Somerset where attempts to lower the flow of water into rivers through tree-planting, better soil management and placing logs in streams to create leaky dams, have proven effective.
Irish authorities might also see benefits in this alternative flood management approach. TD Anne Rabbitte welcomed the report's findings. She told That's Farming: “It's a very positive development. South Galway is in crisis with flooding. Nature has left the tapestry we just need to work with it. During the flood crisis this year two local farmers were out with two diggers. If they were allowed to work for another week they'd have solves many issues with future flooding. It's not complicated to those on the ground. We need more joined up thinking. Authorities are not engaging with local knowledge. As time moves on rivers become overgrown. They might not even realise they're there. There's a natural valley running through south Galway but this was removed with land improvement. They lost the natural grain of the land. It's a case of increased productivity becoming counter-productive.”
Deputy Rabbitte added: “When you look at how the waters come off the mountain, you have Coillte and Bord na Mona with the best of drains [ultimately feeding the Shannon]. It's about managing the flow off the mountain. Natural Flood Management is more in keeping with the landscape, more environmentally friendly. It's a positive step. It ticks all the boxes. I'm sure farmers wouldn't mind their land being flooded as long as they have it back for March or April. We could also be using unproductive peatland [to store floodwaters].”