As we reflect on the misery and pain dealt by recent floods, a consensus is emerging about the need to work more with nature in alleviating the scale and frequency of future incidents.
The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, council leaders and residents have all spoken of how we might better use natural features and processes to slow the flow of water from the land, thereby reducing the risk of it ending up in homes and businesses downstream.
Essentially, if our landscapes can become rougher, greener “sponges”, richer in wildlife and with space once more for features like temporary ponds, they will store more water upstream and have capacity to release it gradually, reducing the scale of both floods and drought. On the coast and estuaries they can create spaces for tidal flood waters and absorb energy from waves to help manage erosion and flooding.
The opportunity is evidently considerable and, if approached in the right way, could bring many benefits for people and the environment. In addition to helping our landscapes and communities cope better with increasingly extreme weather, a joined up response to flooding could also aid wildlife recovery, improve water purity, catch carbon from the atmosphere and create health and wellbeing benefits for people.
Working more closely with nature could also help to protect our future food security. Soil is essential for growing crops, yet vast tracts of it lie bare and are washed away with heavy rains, turning rivers and estuaries the colour of dark chocolate, as the delicate skin of the land that has taken thousands of years to form is washed away.
Healthy soils with a high proportion of organic matter hold far more water than soils that have been damaged, or depleted by agriculture, and that organic matter is also a massive carbon store. By improving and protecting soil health, we can thus meet multiple objectives, securing future food production and helping to mitigate climate change while also slowing the flow of water.
And in farmed landscapes it is not only soil improvements through cover crops and other methods that can help; the varied vegetation that can exist around and between fields, such as grassy margins, hedge-banks, bushes, small woods and wetlands, can provide the roughness that delays water on its downward course, while bringing benefits for wildlife. Restoring our natural habitats across both upland and lowland landscapes would allow wild plants to thrive and produce a slowing effect across catchments.
Keeping soil on farms and out of rivers can reduce flood risk, and so can more natural river systems. Rivers with meandering courses, with space for overspill onto floodplains, slow down the flow and store water and at the same time support an abundance of life.
How we might reap multiple benefits through storing water on the land can be seen in catchments like the Nene and Ouse in Cambridgeshire, where extensive washlands give space for the rivers to spread into after heavy rain. As well as performing this vital function, these wetlands are among the most important in the East of England for wildlife and also provide recreation opportunities for people. Swindale Beck in the Lake District has recently had its bends restored, providing better habitat for fish and plants and allowing surrounding fields to soak up flood water.
By looking afresh at our landscapes, our rivers and the floodplains that flank them, much could be gained. In some instances it seems that the re-establishment of once native wildlife can help too. Research from the trial Beaver reintroduction on the River Otter in Devon presents data, as do other studies, to show how the dams and wetlands created by these animals increase water storage and slow water flow, smoothing flood peaks to alleviate flood risk downstream.
In addition to soil protection and restoring our rivers, we can also curb the flow of water from the land through restoring natural habitats. Take the blanket bogs that clothe much of upland England, especially in the North. These vast sponges that sprawl over the hills, can hold vast quantities of water, if they are in good health. Grasslands too, and woods, can soak up rain, bringing downstream benefits.
Research into natural flood management techniques has been taking place and the evidence of their merit is growing. These measures are likely to form an important element of the Environment Agency’s forthcoming Flood and Coast Strategy, one of a number of platforms for the EA and Natural England to combine their expertise for the benefit of nature restoration and flood risk reduction.
More key opportunities to pursue this more joined up agenda are now at hand. These include the new farming scheme – currently being designed to succeed the Common Agriculture Policy - that has such a strong focus on environmental outcomes and also the goal set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan to establish a national Nature Recovery Network. Sustainable agriculture and restoring natural features are thus not only good for the environment, but also good for people, including in some cases through reducing flood risk.
These general observations do not of course add up to a straight choice between natural flood management or more familiar engineered defences. Natural approaches will never be able to avert all flooding, but as we have seen all too vividly lately, neither can man-made defences. By looking at the individual attributes of each river catchment, however, and how they can best be served by a blend of approaches, we might not only help to effectively cut flood risk, but to do that in a cost effective manner that brings a range of other benefits.
In order to reduce flood risk in the future it will be vital to foster cooperation between farmers, local authorities, moorland owners, utility companies and others, including public bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission. This can be done, so long as we put in place the means to build the partnerships needed for nature’s recovery.
*This blog has been adapted from a comment piece by Tony Juniper which appeared in The Times Red Box on 27 February.