A couple of weeks after the torrential rain in the south west of England earlier this year, I had to go to Exeter, with the train from Bristol diverted the long way round via Bath and Warminster. It was a fine day, with the late afternoon sun glinting off what looked like stunningly beautiful lakes, sometimes stretching all the way to the horizon. The birdlife was extraordinary, half-submerged trees and hedgerows alien and dramatic.
It’s April now, and both the flood waters and the intensity of the debate have subsided. Dredging in one or two key places started as soon as water levels had returned to something resembling normality, with the Government intent on demonstrating that it was finally ‘getting on top of the problem’.
Such dredging is more or less symbolic – in that it won’t make much of a difference one way or the other when such an intensity of rainfall occurs again. It’s a short-term solution with a misleading focus: what those dredgers are taking out of the rivers is soil – washed off the surrounding hills and fields. Although local farmers were most vociferous in their demand for the dredging to start, it’s actually the soil from their fields that is causing the problem. As commentator George Monbiot said at the time: “It’s like trying to empty the bath while the taps are still running.”
Most of those farmers know that. And over a pint of good Somerset cider, they will even acknowledge that the millions of pounds a year which will be needed to get that soil back out of the rivers and waterways would be much better spent upstream, keeping the ground in place on their fields, where its nutrients are needed. But that’s not how farming subsidies work: in effect, they’re being incentivised to farm in such a way that their soil inevitably ends up in the rivers.
So what would it mean to deploy those budgets to fix the soil upstream? It would mean restoring both upland and lowland wetlands, replanting woodlands and hedgerows in the uplands, and ‘de-canalising’ some stretches of river to recreate meanders and oxbow lakes. It would mean paying farmers to store water on their fields, incentivising them back to springtime sowing rather than in winter (which leaves the soil exposed in the rainy season), and an end to growing maize in all areas particularly at risk. And all that means resisting the bullying tactics of the National Farmers’ Union to ensure that public money is only used to secure public benefits, not unsustainable private gain.
Apart from a few articles by environmentalists, this whole upstream/downstream dimension was largely absent during the floods. But just at the point when the flood water started to subside, Labour leader Ed Miliband stirred himself into making a powerful intervention, asserting categorically that the floods should be seen as a direct consequence of accelerating climate change. And he accused the Coalition Government of allowing the UK to “sleepwalk into a national security crisis”. A powerful political soundbite, but he didn’t elaborate. He didn’t explicitly draw out the links between accelerating climate change, flooding, soil and national security.
But soil is the bedrock of national security. Any society intent on sustaining itself indefinitely into the future will always have regard to its ability to feed itself; global trade in agriculture exempts us from having to achieve 100% self-sufficiency, but at just 60%, the UK has no reason to feel complacent. Especially as current farming practices continue to erode that bedrock.
Even the most evangelistic free marketeers in the UK, focused as they are on reducing the size of the state, would still subscribe to the idea that security remains an absolute prerogative of the state. If you buy into the idea that national security means a lot more than the percentage of GDP spent on defence through one’s armed forces, then you might logically ask why such an infinitesimally small amount of government spending is devoted to soil science.
The irony of this was brought home to me very powerfully when Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence, visited the Somerset Levels at the height of the floods. He talked a lot about investing in flood defences downstream (glossing over the cuts made by his government at the Environment Agency), but said nothing about investing in flood mitigation upstream by changing farming practices.
So what does all this mean for the Somerset Levels? The risk of severe, increasingly frequent flooding is now so high that even moving our flood defences upstream may be unlikely to protect the Levels in the long term. Significant investment may still be required in big engineering projects downstream. And as costs rise, society may well decide that it would make more sense to ‘let the Levels go’. But that traumatic moment of truth will come a great deal sooner if we stick to our reactive, short-term downstream mindset. Increased resilience and security depends entirely on shifting those mindsets upstream as soon as possible.
Photo credit: Nick Woodford