The Guardian: After the torrential rain of Christmas Eve, logs stacked outside Helen Webber and John Hesp’s thatched cottage were washed away down the lane. The rust-red river that surges past their 400-year-old home in the north Somerset village of Bossington was rising rapidly, and automated alarm calls by phone had awoken them in the early hours.
The couple have endured the misery of being flooded three times in last 20 years. But this time, despite the extreme downpour, the river did not burst its banks and their home was saved.
“It was a narrow escape,” says Webber, who remembers well the trauma of previous floods. “It is really horrible, everything smells and is dirty and you have to chuck a lot of stuff away. You’re left with a damp, empty shell.”
Webber’s home, and 100 others nearby, are now protected by a radical landscape experiment that passed its first severe test during the recent weeks of extreme weather. Reversing centuries of efforts to drain land, dredge rivers and rush water to the sea, banks have been built to deliberately flood fields. Historic water meadows and silted-up ponds have been re-established, while old ditches and tracks have been dammed and new woods planted.
“It’s all about slowing up the water,” says Nigel Hester, who managed the project (pdf) on the National Trust’s 12,500-acre Holnicote estate which runs from the high moors of Exmoor to the flat, narrow coastal plain on which Bossington sits. “With the amount of rain we had, I was amazed no one got flooded. We must have held just enough back.”
He says the project is going back to nature, restoring the natural function of rivers. “It was all about control in the past, getting rid of the water as quick as possible. But that just moved the problem downstream.”
For Robert Williams, a sixth-generation cattle and sheep farmer whose land now holds back up to 23m litres of pooled water, the changes to his fields are worth it. “When I looked at the plans, I made my mind up pretty sharp: I wouldn’t want to get flooded myself, and my son lives in the village down there.” He jokes that the slopes of the new 5ft banks have increased the grass-growing area for his herds.
The Holnicote experiment is one of three set up after the devastating floods of 2007 to explore alternatives to huge and costly concrete defences. Above Pickering in Yorkshire – flooded four times in a decade – the Forestry Commission is planting more trees, and woody debris has been put in rivers to slow the flow. In the Peak District upstream of Derby and Nottingham, drainage gullies are being blocked.
Pete Fox, head of strategy at the Environment Agency, which oversees the flood defences, says: “The traditional mantra was to increase the flow of water away from the land.” He says the straightening and deepening of rivers was extreme in places, with the Wyre in Lancashire halving in length in the last century as meanders were cut out, speeding up the flow. It flooded most recently in 2010.
“But now we have a more considered approach,” he says, which also applies to new urban developments. Currently rain runs straight into town sewers, but with climate change bringing more intense downpours, the underground pipes are becoming more frequently overwhelmed andmillions of homes are now at risk of flash floods. In Salford, soil has been shifted around a housing estate to raise the houses and allow future floodwater to pond in gardens and parks, rather than shoot down drains.
Hannah Cloke, a flood expert at the University of Reading, says some people who have been repeatedly flooded are now even putting theirhomes on stilts. But less extreme measures are vital too, she says, like porous paving in driveways and green roofs that help protect individual homes. “We are living with the legacy of lots of houses built on the floodplain, though changes to regulations and planning mean not many developments go ahead there now.”
The exceptional month of storms has also brought a fierce battering of coastal defences. But through another “back to nature” approach, communities near Selsey and Bracklesham in West Sussex have survived unscathed. In November, in a “managed realignment”, the sea walls were deliberately breached, letting the ocean back on to land and recreating saltmarshes. These now soak up the destructive power of the storms, better protecting the 350 homes beyond. Similar realignments are occurring along the coast of East Anglia.
In West Sussex, letting the sea back in has created a new RSPB nature reserve. The society’s head of water policy, Rob Cunningham, says: “We are seeing a lot of knee-jerk responses to the current floods, seeking to return things to a 1960s state. But we have to adapt and progress into a world where this level of rain and storms is normal.”
That adaptation will have to involve the farmers who look after two-thirds of the country’s land, but many have felt left out of changing approaches to flood management. “All of the money is being driven into capital schemes to protect urban homes and less and less on background maintenance work which keeps the system flowing,” says Ian Moody, of the National Farmers Union. He accepts that in some places there are good reasons to slow up runoff once more, but he argues that on flat land like the currently submerged Somerset levels, dredging watercourses is critical.
He describes the £5m recently added to dwindling maintenance funds as “chicken feed” and says that if farmers are to store water on their land, they will need to be paid for the service, as happens in Germany.
Spending on flood defences has become a hot political issue in recent weeks, with annual spending set to fall 15% in real terms under the coalition, compared with the level inherited from the last government. “Some of the defences have held remarkably well but I think we were lucky,” says Cloke, the flood expert. “Had the water levels been just a little bit higher, we could have jumped into a much bigger category of damage.”
“There will always be a place for the big defences,” says Fox. “In towns and cities, for example, we are actively delivering schemes in Leeds, Exeter, Ipswich, Leicester and Derby.” Asked whether enough money is being spent, he says: “That is the $64,000 question. It is the Environment Agency’s task to demonstrate what level of protection you get for a given level of investment. It is up to ministers to decide how much money is spent. One of the most important messages is that we just can’t stop it all.”
Charles Tucker, chair of the National Flood Forum, which represents hundreds of flood-affected communities, says the funding situation is stark. “Yet again, the government is wringing its hands while the waters rise, while squeezing the life out of the bodies they have made responsible for tackling flooding. Tackling flooding must become a national priority.”
In Bossington, Hester says the government provided most of the £1m spent on the landscape experiment, started in 2009 and now protecting about £30m worth of housing. “These things do cost money, but when you consider the value that is at risk, it’s a great deal.”
Webber, under the timber beams in her warm and dry sitting room, agrees: “We feel much better.”
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