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Flooding: don’t blame the rain

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Pollution, poor planning and land use mean that bad weather can cause man-made disasters, argues architect Stirling Howieson
Issue 2058
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

Why is the world becoming so prone to “natural” disasters? The recent floods in Britain have been blamed on “freak weather – a once in a lifetime incident – an act of god!”

If this is the case either lifetimes are getting shorter or god must be a pretty vindictive character.

There are several reasons why flooding is becoming more prevalent and widespread and none of them can be classified as “natural”. The incidence of flooding is occurring for three reasons: pollution, land use and poor planning.

One of the main consequences of global warming is a greater rate of evaporation at the equator. Once up there, the water vapour has to come down.

Where it comes down cannot be neatly predicted as weather systems are chaotic, but we have seen major changes in rainfall patterns over the last 20 years that have brought drought to Africa and flooding across large parts of Europe.

If this “freak” rainfall is combined with high tides and storm surges most cites in Britain will be at risk of flooding.

Climatologists have for some time now predicted a much wetter and windier Northern Europe as a direct result of carbon pollution.

There is also great pressure in many towns and cities to build on flood plains. Such land is invariably cheaper and “green belt” policies inhibit more sensible “ribbon” development along transport networks.

The Thames Gateway is a prime example of this stupidity. Tens of thousands of dwellings are to be built on land barely above existing high tide levels.

To protect these dwellings will require unprecedented investment in levees and dykes.

Adopting a river containment strategy, however, simply results in making flooding downstream more severe, and where catastrophic failure occurs – such as happened in New Orleans – people die as vast areas are laid to waste.

The rate of water run-off from any land mass is also influenced by land use. This becomes obvious in sub-tropical environments where trees and bushes are felled for fuel or to make way for short root cash crops.

When the rains come there is no longer the critical mass of vegetation on the hillsides to hold it and slow its release. The result is mud-slides and rapid flooding, and crucially a much higher likelihood that flooding will be more severe the next year.

When this effect is combined with water run-off from large areas of roads in our towns and cities – many of which have inadequate Victorian sewers – the water pressure can build from both sides, resulting in rapid filling of urban sumps.

The short-term effects of such incidents make excellent news. Note the television reporters strategically positioned in front of muddy carpets and the ubiquitous individual in a canoe.

The long-term effects, however, are much more insidious. It can take over two years for the brickwork to dry out. During this time timber joists will be prone to attack by fungus that leads to dry rot.

Mould fungal spores will also be growing on any damp surface. Mould has a proven link to a variety of diseases, with the respiratory tract most vulnerable.

Just watch the GP surgeries in these flooded areas fill with coughing and wheezing patients in the months to come.

Some of the cost of these floods will be picked up by the insurance industry – an industry that has had to pay out billions more than expected in the last few years due to weather related catastrophes.

To protect itself the industry has invested in sophisticated computer modeling that highlights areas prone to flooding.

If you live or are about to buy a new house in such an area you will not be able to purchase insurance cover. Being flooded once is traumatic. Being flooded out on a yearly basis will result in homes being abandoned.

How many people have decided not to return to New Orleans?

The biggest indictment of capitalism is that it can’t feed the people. To that we can now add that it can’t keep them dry and it can’t stop global warming. As the fundamental driver for every business is growth and short-term profit, you simply cannot have “green” capitalism.

All the guff in the press about Tesco’s “green” efforts to reduce packaging by 20 percent is cynical marketing hype.

This year, like all the other chains, their carbon footprint will increase as they complete another tranche of their programme to build over 150 new stores.

Flooding is not inevitable. Sure as global warming picks up pace, rainfall will increase and there will always be isolated downpours that will cause localised problems, but the scale of the recent floods demonstrate the short-termism that underlies a free market system.

Money is not being spent on maintaining and renewing the drainage infrastructure and developers are being invited by the planning authorities to build poor quality dwellings on flood planes.

In JL and B Hammond’s book, The Town Labourer 1760-1832, which profiles the life of a labourer in the early 19th century, the description of the housing market was succinct: “The quantity and quality of working class housing was decided by the avarice of the jerry builder catering for the avarice of the capitalist.”

Nothing much has changed.


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