I have to admit to being a bit perplexed why so much fuss is being made over the recent flooding in the UK. Yes, of course there has been damage to property and loss of life, there have been huge waves that have reshaped our coasts, and weeks of rain have given rise to extensive floods in the first few days of 2014. However, floods are to be expected! Anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge about rainfall and hydrological systems should know that flood periodicity occurs, and that this can be described statistically. Thus, we refer to the notion of a 100-year flood as being a flood amount with a 1% probability of occurring in any one year; a 500-year flood has a 0.2% chance of occurring in any one year. Big floods are expected; we just cannot predict exactly when! Naturally, flood plains are those areas into which rivers overflow, and historically people knew this and built their properties above the usual flood level. Looking at the photographs of flooded parts of England, it is fascinating to see that in most cases it is the ancient churches and oldest houses that are most frequently to be seen above the rising water levels. River management systems seek to deal with the most frequent flood levels, and the challenge is to get the balance right between protection and cost. Thus, the expense of protecting against 1000-year floods is often prohibitive, and it is generally argued that it is much better simply to pay for repair to the damage of these extreme events. In Britain, the Environment Agency, for example, provides detailed maps of flood risk, which specifically identifies the areas at risk of 1000 year floods (in pale blue).
Unfortunately, a long period of relatively few floods in the UK in the 195os and 1960s led planners increasingly to build on flood plains, and although the amount of building on flood plains in Scotland and Wales is now very slight, 11% of new builds in England in 2011 were still in areas at risk of 100 year floods. Some 5.2 million houses in England, representing 23.1% of existing properties are estimated to be at risk of such floods. This demand by ‘developers’ shows no signs of abating, and a report in 2012 indicated that planning applications were submitted to build as many as 28,000 new homes on land that officials considered to be at serious risk of flooding. It is not nature, or any failings of the Environment Agency that are to blame for the misery of our present floods, but rather the demand for housing and the greed of those who want to maximise profits from house building and other construction on flood plains! I have to say that with respect to the recent floods it would appear that the Environment Agency has actually done a remarkably good job, and I am dismayed at how critical so many people seem to have been of the flood protection efforts made by recent governments.
Whilst such floods are obviously very sad and damaging for those affected by them, they are a good reminder that nature is actually much more powerful than we often give it credit for, and waterscapes of flooding can indeed be very striking and beautiful. Below I capture some images taken over the last couple of days of the Thames at Runnymede – as the National Trust sign says, “The birthplace of modern democracy”!