After the storm it’s time to start managing water

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The scenes of flooding from northern England and parts of north Wales which have dominated our news screens over Christmas and continue to dominate our screens into the new year are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying for the people who have been forced out of their homes. Many will never again feel comfortable and safe in the homes that they have spent a lifetime building for their family.

A a former environment minister I saw at first hand the impacts of winter storms along the north Wales coast and again in Aberystwyth two years ago. I have stood in the living rooms of people crying their eyes out and spoken to people trembling with fear because they relive the sound of the water rushing into their homes every time they hear the weather forecast. And people who cannot look at the brook in high summer without seeing the torrent which took away for ever their security and peace of mind.

Let no-one be in any doubt of the impact of this destruction. It is not simply a matter of time and money, it is peoples’ home, memories and futures which are being destroyed. The personal impact is even more devastating than the material and economic impact on a whole town or city. But having said that, the sight of some of England’s major cities being brought to their knees in this way retains the ability to shock as does the sight of our own communities and major infrastructure such as the A55 under immediate threat.

There are certainly changes taking place to our weather patterns. Storms have always happened and alway will do so, but the storms that we have witnessed in recent years are unprecedented in their ferocity and their frequency. Whilst it is true that there are limits to what can be either done or promised by governments and politicians to protect us from nature, we have been warned of these changes for many years by the scientific community and it is therefore a fair question to ask governments and policy-makers what actions have they taken as a consequence of these warnings and how these warnings have affected their decisions.

And in asking this question we need to look at not only the immediate short-term priorities but also at the long term. In the short term we will clearly need to invest in traditional defences to protect homes and infrastructure. The north Wales coast with both the main rail-line and the A55 situated right on the coastline alongside a significant number of vulnerable communities is a good example of an area where continued investment is required in these sorts of defences. But perhaps the key to dealing with these events in the long term lies not so much in the concrete of huge flood defence schemes but in the longer term programmes which changes behaviour to accommodate climate change and how we manage water in our society and environment.

Rather strangely in England the media seem adapt at reporting the facts but doing so with an almost beguiling lack of curiosity. If these same events took place in Wales then I’m pretty sure that more substantial questions would be asked about the policy approach taken by successive governments. Cameron has now been forced to answer some serious questions on the approach taken by both of his governments but generally he has faced little criticism or question over the policies of this and the last coalition government who have cut spending on flood and coastal defences as a a matter of policy. Those climate change deniers, who seem to sometimes drive UK Government policy thinking and of whom the BBC still seem to be in awe, are never seen speaking to the people who have lost everything at times like this. They prefer the safety of a tv/radio studio or an editorial conference full of their school pals who all live in well-protected and safe environments. It’s time for Cameron to dig out his sledge and take them on.

At the same time the criticism of our own First Minister on this matter is misplaced. Both the minister, Carl Sargeant, and the First Minister have visited the areas affected. It is unfair and unreasonable to attack either one of them for not visiting a particular location at a particular time. The fact that both took the time to speak with people affected as well as the emergency services and that both will visit again this week demonstrates the seriousness with which the Welsh Government takes these matters. And this is not new. I remember commissioning two reports from NRW on our coastal defences in the wake of those storms two years ago. There was no argument at all over ensuring that the Welsh Government committed all the resources and the cash needed to repair the damage. Compare and contrast with the actions and decisions of the UK Government.

These events will bring again into focus the importance of climate change, along with inequality and the eradication of poverty, as the key challenges of our age. The Welsh Government, alongside all other governments, needs to make the mitigation and adaptation of the impact of climate change a key determinant of policy. And I hope that this will feature in the Welsh Labour manifesto when it is published in a few months.

So what do we do?

Firstly, as I have already suggested we do need to maintain, repair and invest in the traditional means of defence against flooding for some of our most vulnerable communities and infrastructure. Secondly, we need to ensure that the Pitt Report is implemented in full with an emphasis on relocating essential infrastructure to safer locations and UK utilities need to be compelled to do this if they do not prioritise it immediately. And finally we need a serious debate about how we manage water in our society and environment. And this debate needs to start high in the uplands and needs to end in our own front gardens.

We have managed water badly in the uplands for decades and this is the fault of both farming as an industry and successive policies driven by successive governments. In the annual row between George Monbiot and the NFU we tend to lose sight of what is possible in a tiresome and sterile point-scoring exercise. However there is an inescapable truth. If we manage water better in the uplands then we will do much to reduce river-flooding in the lowlands. For too long farmers have managed the subsidy system rather the land. And they have been encouraged to do so by the farming unions and by lazy politicians. The result has been a deterioration in the ability of our uplands to absorb and filter water in a way which will contribute towards the regularisation of water flow in our rivers.

And this is possible. There are many great examples of tree-planting and livestock management which are helping our soils and rivers cope. The example of Pontbren in Montgomeryshire is a good one as is the management of the Wye and Usk and, in places, the Tywi as well. One of the things that I did in government was to insist the the current rural development plan includes the restoration of Wales’ blanket bogs. Perhaps not the sexiest policy ever promoted by government but it is one that will will manage water in a more traditional and effective way than the centuries-old practice of bog-draining. It will also help reduce our carbon emissions by recreating enormous carbon sinks and will enable better mixed upland grazing which in itself will help the uplands become more productive and economically viable.

And this approach needs to form the basis of our approach to river basin management along the river course. Those people who seek to dredge every river every year contribute to the problem and not to solving the problems. We have seen too much top soil lost and too many rivers straightened and the natural approach to water management lost over the years. Dredging is only an answer for the TV cameras. It is never the way in which we will maintain healthy watercourses into the future.

But we need the full suite of policies to make this happen. The current system of farm payments do not do this. My successor as agricultural minister had no choice but to introduce the current system given the high court challenge that she faced last year however, the impact of the system is to make many millionaires in the uplands and this will do nothing to encourage a better way of farming. Better to pay the farming community to manage the land in a more sustainable way than simply to throw vast sums of public money at the industry with little public policy return.

And then we need to manage the water in our towns and cities more efficiently and more intelligently. For instance, it is mad that we try to capture and treat, at huge public expense, all water that falls in our towns and cities. Welsh Water has been piloting some “waterscape” schemes which seek to build soft water capture and management in an urban environment. We need this to be norm in the future.

In terms of planning and urban land use we need to ensure that water management is a part of all new developments and is a part of how we plans our urban spaces. For instance, why not plant grass and wild flowers in our city centres rather than endless concrete squares? Why not help people to maintain lawns rather than concrete over gardens? And ensure that porous and absorbent surfaces replace the hard urban town- and cityscapes to which we have become too accustomed over recent years. I’m not sure that I agree with Monbiot when he demands the wholesale re-wilding of the countryside but he certainly has a point about our towns.

And its this long-term intelligent approach that has already proven successive in protecting Pickering from the worst of the flooding over the last few weeks. And it is this long-term approach that will change not only the shape of our towns and cities but also how we value and manage water throughout our environment. And that can only be a good thing.