18th December

Friends of the Earth react to 2015 flooding

Cara Augustenborg, FoE chairman

Augustenborg

Recent flooding across the country has put climate change at the front of many people’s minds. Record-breaking rainfall demonstrates how our warming climate is intensifying the water cycle and putting us at greater risk of storms and floods.

Risk of extreme storms on the west coast of Ireland is now up 25% due to climate change, and the OPW says up to 70,000 properties could be at risk of flooding from increased rainfall and sea-level rise as a result of climate change.

Adaptation is the only response for the impacts that will occur over the next several decades before climate mitigation measures and greenhouse gas reductions can have an effect. Flooding is an urgent climate impact we must address immediately.

Many suggestions have been made to prevent future flooding, most of which advocate a ‘hard engineering’ approach such as flood defence walls, dredging and channelling rivers. Previous experience in other countries however demonstrates that these costly measures only serve to speed up the water, and may even worsen flooding downstream while damaging ecology, tourism and recreation in the process.

Readers may be familiar with the concrete-lined rivers of Los Angeles made famous by car chase scenes in movies such as Terminator II and Grease. In response to a series of catastrophic floods in the 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Los Angeles River’s channel and encased 80% of its banks in concrete to fix its path and move the vast quantities of water arising in the rainy season out to the sea as fast as possible.

Some refer to this as the river’s ‘straight jacket’ because these engineering works caused more problems than they solved, ruining aesthetics and ecology along the river and creating a dangerous environment and many accidental deaths when water travelled up to 72km per hour in peak flow.

Having learned a hard lesson, the City of Los Angeles has been working to remove these concrete channels since the 1990s and to restore the river back to a living landscape.

Contrast this experience with those of Pickering in Yorkshire and the Pontbren project in Wales where ‘soft engineering’ was used to slow down upstream instead. As a flooding blackspot in the UK the residents were told the only solution was costly dredging and aesthetically unpleasing river channelling that would damage their tourism industry. They opted instead to spend one tenth of the money by constructing so-called ‘leaky dams’ out of logs and hay bales, and bund walls to store floodwater. They were one of the few areas spared from flooding in the UK this year.

In the Pontbren project, farmers planted mixed native trees in their uplands and reinstated hedgerows and ponds to allow water to flow into the soil instead of rushing downstream, demonstrating the potential to reduce flooding by 29% if all farmers in the catchment adopted such practices.

Such ‘soft engineering’ features improve the ecology and recreational use of the river, and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and ‘win-win’ opportunities of working with nature instead of against it.

Residents along river banks here are calling out for dredging and channelling to clear the blockages and speed the flow of water to the sea, but such measures will only put those living downstream at greater risk and damage our rivers’ ecology and aesthetics with knock-on effects to tourism, recreation and fisheries. As rainfall intensity is predicted to increase, hard flood defences would have to be continually raised at great cost to cope with ‘new normals’.

A softer, cheaper, and more immediate approach is required ― one in which flooding is addressed on a catchment-wide scale, and farmers upstream are paid to be our first flood defenders, slowing water down and allowing it time to percolate into our soils.

While we cannot stop the rain from falling, we can address how our landscape copes with that rainfall, but we must do so in a holistic manner that works with our natural landscape rather than against it.

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