Blue-sky thinking needed to bolster battered flood management policies
— Lord Chris Smith, Chairman, the Environment Agency
Environment Agency Chairman Lord Chris Smith has today had to defend the Agency’s flood management record in response to growing criticism that it could have done more to alleviate the flooding in Somerset and other parts of the South. But the above quote does not come from his appearance this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, but from an interview he gave on the same programme nearly a year ago, on 4 March 2013.
The comment is brought to light in a policy brief written for the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society by William Howarth, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Kent, who warned of the growing need for a new approach to water security in May last year. The policy brief, entitled Integrated Water Resources Management and the Right to Water Security, emerged from a workshop held at Wolfson College, Oxford, which brought together representatives from the Environment Agency, Defra, and water companies with academic experts on water law, rights, and management, in order to review the Water Bill passing through Parliament and address the growing threats to the water resource resulting from population growth and climate change.
It is easy to see why residents and farmers stranded by weeks of floodwaters have received such popular support, not to mention widespread media coverage for their well-orchestrated campaign to force the Environment Agency to redouble their efforts in clearing up the flood waters. It may be true that more lessons should have been learned from the floods of 2013 and that the dredging of rivers and better maintenance of natural water systems would have helped to mitigate the devastating effects of the heavy rainfall of recent weeks. But it is also true that there is more to the issue than simple solutions, and one can sympathise with Lord Smith’s claim that limited resources and increasing pressure on the finances of public bodies such as the Environment Agency are combining to make their task even more difficult at a time when so-called exceptional weather events are becoming ever more common and extreme.
One of the additional factors that make the job of the Environment Agency all the more difficult, as Professor Howarth argues, is that the Common Agricultural Policy and the Water Framework Directive do not always work in harmony, and that the European Commission communication A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resource s (COM  673), “provides a concise survey of just how disintegrated EU water legislation actually is”.
Whilst we may not be surprised to hear that the UK and Europe may not see eye to eye on the best policy to tackle the problem more effectively, Professor Howarth’s more radical observation is that the conventional flood defence response to changing weather patterns is no longer possible, or, indeed, desirable. Instead, he makes a convincing case for a wholesale sea change in our thinking on water management in the face of scarce resources, in order to recognize, “the inevitability and the natural character of the threats involved and the need for sustainable responses that work with nature rather than against it”.
Rather than ploughing vast resources into desperate attempts to clear property, roads, and agricultural land from the after-effects of flood waters, responses which sometimes merely serve to disperse water to other regions, there should, he argues, be a new emphasis away from flood defence towards ‘flood risk management’, which involves accurate and long-term forecasting of risks, a return to more natural means of water dispersal, and a clear-sighted acceptance of what is the most effective allocation of resources. “Defending land against flooding may not always be a sustainable option in the long term and, recognizing the inevitability of flooding, the aim should be to minimize the harm to which this gives rise.”
In words that may prove less than encouraging to those struggling to mop up their flood-damaged properties, he goes even further to suggest that, in some cases, “this might mean the abandonment of previously constructed flood defence structures and the restoration of floodplain areas to expand flood-water capacity at places where inundation will be least damaging.”
In additional recommendations for policymakers battling the ever-increasing chorus of public dissatisfaction at the length of time needed to restore flood affected regions to normality, Professor Howarth calls for:
- more stringent requirements for ‘sustainable drainage systems’, whereby excess water is channelled into the ground by infiltration rather than being piped directly into watercourses to exacerbate downstream flooding; and
- more categorical requirements to prevent development in areas that cannot be sustainably defended, taking into account the cumulative effect of developments and the long-term trends in extreme weather events.
Clearly, angry residents of the Somerset Levels may find little comfort in recommendations not to build houses in high-risk areas, nor that, regardless of how much money is sunk into flood defences, there are no guarantees that the expenditure will prevent future flooding. The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, may well be wishing today that he’d spent a little more time on his visit to Somerset yesterday listening to what these same residents were experiencing, rather than announcing another government review.
But one can only hope that, in six weeks’ time when the review is published, it doesn’t regurgitate the same approaches that are proving increasingly ineffective in today’s environment, and instead, shows some signs of putting into practice Professor Howarth’s more pragmatic, if you will — blue-sky thinking — in the process.
Professor William Howarth is Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Kent and programme convenor of the Masters Programmes in Environmental Law in Kent Law School. He is general editor of the Journal of Water Law; honorary legal adviser to the Institute of Fisheries Management; a member of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association and the Agricultural Law Association; and is the regional representative for the International Association for Water Law.
His policy brief Integrated Water Resources Management and the Right to Water Security, along with a number of other policy briefs on water rights and the law, can be downloaded from our Regulation Publications Page.