OPINION: I was just thinking... about flooding

Flooding in some of Richard Baron's meadows Flooding in some of Richard Baron's meadows

Sunday, February 16, 2014
4:04 PM

I was just thinking…about water.

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There is just too much of it around at present. It falls from the sky in a seemingly never-ending torrent. Unwelcome precipitation records are being smashed all over the place. Never has it been so wet. Never has dredging made so many front pages of national newspapers or been the lead story on the broadcast media. The dire situation of the inundated Somerset Levels has brought liquid effluvia into sharp focus as an issue upon which folk are contentiously divided. And now here, on our own patch of North Hertfordshire ground, dredging crops up again. Burns Road in Royston had a large puddle through which people were obliged to walk, cycle or drive to access various local amenities.

The Roystonian deluge appears to have been sorted out by 10 minutes of high-pressure work by local drainage contractors. For which relief, much thanks. The Somerset calamity, however, has developed into an endless round of recrimination and counter-recrimination between the Environment Agency, the pickled (as ‘twere), larger-than-life stand-in for the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Prime Minister, the local chinless-wonder, double-barrelled Tory MP and the poor, sodden residents of that part of our, now, brown and soggy land. This particular round of hot air expulsion has done little to dry things off. If anything it has inflamed the situation.

There must be sympathy for both sides and for neither. Of course, it is terrible for the people whose houses, businesses and farms have been flooded for far too long. Theirs is a miserable plight which gumboots and a bit of brisk sweeping with a hefty brush will do nothing to alleviate. The pictures on our television screens cannot do justice to the horror of it all as animals drown, crops are ruined and property is irrevocably soiled. The thing that floats past on the flood, thought to have been banished forever down the pan, must be a truly awful thing to encounter.

Yet pity too those in authority who have been faced with such downpours, the like of which have not been witnessed since the 18th century. What are they supposed to do or to have done? Informed opinion says a bit of dredging would have made little difference. Far too little, far too late.

Taking the lateral view, is there not a question that must be asked about the draining both of the Somerset Levels and, much nearer home, of the Fens? Back when Mynheer Cornelius Vermuyden constructed his massive land drainage schemes in the 1650s did no one think to ask what would be the logical consequence of reclaiming land below sea level? Perhaps it is asking too much of those unsophisticated times. But recently, when we know far more about the effects of interference with the natural environment, how is it that such a disaster can be allowed to happen? Such land reclamation and building on flood plains, the removal of natural retardant of flood waters coming down from hillsides and mountains can, and has, only led to the results we have recently witnessed.

And if we do know much more than those pioneering folk of the 17th century, how can we be so blasé as to go on doing exactly those things that led to such misery? The answer, my friends, can only be that we think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. The debit side of interference with the natural order of things is now perfectly obvious to anyone who opens a newspaper or switches on the television. The benefits are more opaque. Clearly increased acreage permits increased production. In a world where people are starving that can only be a good thing surely? Who would be foolhardy or brave enough to put their head above the parapet and suggest that the redeployment of the ‘waste’ of the smug developed world could go some way to rectifying the imbalance of provision in the developing world. But of course that would entail a degree of sacrifice that, collectively, it seems we are not prepared to entertain.

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