A Storm of Ignorance

Censoring official advice, stripping the hills and rivers, the government ensures that disasters like the Cumbria floods will keep recurring.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 8th December 2015

It’s as if it had come to remind us of what’s at stake. While the climate negotiations in Paris trudge their dreary road, Storm Desmond takes a great boot to our backsides. Yet still we fail to make the connection. The news records the spectacle and ignores the implications.

Rainfall on this scale used to be described as a one-in-100 year, or 200-year, or 1000-year event. But in Cumbria, where some 30cm of rain fell in 24 hours, this is the third such catastrophe since 2005. Exceptional events are, perhaps, no longer exceptional.

If so, we should scarcely be surprised. More heat means more energy in the system, and more moisture in the atmosphere. An analysis by scientists at the Met Office, published last month, found that global warming raised the odds – by a factor of seven – that a string of storms of the kind the UK suffered two winters ago would result in exceptionally wet weather.

Just as remarkable is the collective lack of interest in what happens when rain hits the ground. The government boasts that “we are spending £3.2 billion in flood management and defences over the course of this parliament – half a billion pounds more than in the previous parliament.” Yet almost all the money devoted to freshwater flood relief is being spent at the bottom of river catchments. This means waiting until the wall of water arrives before seeking to contain it; a perfect formula for disappointment.

A rational policy would aim to prevent the flood from gathering in the first place. It would address the problem, literally and metaphorically, upstream. A study in mid-Wales suggests that rainwater’s infiltration rate into the soil is 67 times higher under trees than under sheep pasture. Rain that percolates into the soil is released more slowly than rain that flashes over the surface. But Cumbria’s hills are almost entirely treeless, and taxpayers, through the subsidy regime, pay farmers to keep them that way.

Rivers that have been dredged and canalised to protect farmland rush the water instead into the nearest town. Engineering works of this kind were removed a few years ago from the River Liza in Ennerdale. It was allowed to braid, meander and accumulate logs and stones. When the last great storm hit Cumbria, in 2009, the Liza remained clear and fordable the following day, while other rivers roared into furious spate. The Liza’s obstructions held the water back, filtered it and released it slowly. Had all the rivers of Cumbria been rewilded in this way, there might have been no floods, then or now.

During the last deluge, in the winter of 2013-2014, the government’s Environment Agency published a presentation called River Dredging and Flood Defence. It remarked that “Dredging of river channels does NOT prevent flooding during extreme river flows.” Dredging, it noted, makes rivers more dangerous, destabilises bridges, banks and weirs and requires endless expense to maintain.

All copies of this presentation have now been deleted from the web (we republish it exclusively on the Guardian’s site today). It is not hard to see why. In June 2014, in pursuit of its primary mission – appeasing the farming industry – the environment department proposed to deregulate dredging, allowing landowners to strip the structure and wildlife habitat out of ditches and rivers. It will also permit them, with minimal oversight, to extract gravel from the riverbed and to build culverts. There could be no better formula for disaster downstream. Once water is in the rivers, it has to go somewhere. If you don’t hold it back in the fields, it will bowl up instead in people’s homes.

But no one in power seems interested in the causes; all focus is on the outcomes. For the past three years, Cumbria’s two most prominent MPs, Rory Stewart, now a minister at the environment department, and Tim Farron, leader of the Lib Dems, have denounced those who call for the better management of watersheds to prevent flooding. In 2013, Rory Stewart blasted the National Trust because it “allows water to ruin the lowland pastures of their small tenant farms, apparently on the advice of the Environment Agency.” In 2014, he mocked the RSPB and the water company United Utilities for managing their land “in a way that ‘increased biodiversity, decreased flooding, increased carbon capture.’”

In 2013, Tim Farron pronounced himself “delighted that Natural England are readjusting their approach to the uplands, with the recent dropping of their Uplands Vision”. This vision (called Vital Uplands) proposed that there should be more vegetation in the hills to reduce “the risk of downstream flooding”. It noted that “Intensive grazing can cause soil erosion and compaction, and prevent regeneration of scrub and trees, thus speeding water run-off.” The report was publicly denounced by the head of the government body that had commissioned it, Natural England, who happened to make his living as a farmer. Once again, the online version was deleted and the hard copies were pulped. Is this how democracies behave?

Now Messrs Stewart and Farron wring their hands and wring out their clothes, lamenting this inexplicable act of God. On Saturday, Tim Farron was trapped in the floodwaters while driving his car, and had to be rescued. The car, apparently, is a write-off. There is relief that he and his four children came to no harm. Still, parables have been told about men like him.

Meanwhile the talks in Paris have become a festival of empty gestures. The pledges governments have brought fall short of those required to prevent disasters on a much greater scale, and even they are broken as they are made. By pursuing a new dash for gas, while closing down its carbon capture and storage, renewable power and energy efficiency programmes, David Cameron’s government makes a mockery of its promises. Worse still, the collective refusal even to discuss keeping fossil fuels in the ground condemns the talks to futility.

Nothing is learnt, crucial discussions are avoided or buried. We are drowning in ignorance; ignorance manufactured by an illiterate media and a hostile government. Every time disaster strikes we respond with bewilderment. Our understanding of what confronts us seems scarcely to have advanced since we responded to catastrophe by burning old women.