We need to work with nature, not against it

Sadly once again, many parts of the UK were unable to enjoy the festive period because of the misery that severe flooding has brought to their lives. With a changing climate and a growing population, this is the time to work with nature and not against it.

The mildest, wettest December on record

It is official. We have just experienced the warmest and wettest December for more than a century, according to The Met Office.

Temperatures reached an incredible 17.2 degrees in December in parts of south-west England and Scotland, which felt a bit surreal when we were meant to be putting up our Christmas trees and making mince pies. Rainfall was 191% above average with most of that falling in northern parts of the country with devastating consequences.

Let rivers function as rivers

Healthy rivers help to buffer the impacts of floods and droughts on society, as well as providing other ecosystem services such as the supply of drinking water to our homes. During a flood, rain falls on land and rushes into watercourses. When the flow of water exceeds what a river can hold, it will overtop its bank onto its floodplain. The floodplain then acts as a sponge, helping to regulate the amount of water flowing downstream.

A healthy river system can perform this function. Unfortunately our rivers are struggling, with only 17% currently healthy. They have been polluted, their channels have been altered and their natural floodplains have been over-developed.

Yet, whenever flooding occurs, the public debate often jumps to the idea of people versus nature, which is unhelpful. One way we see this play out is in the media and political arenas, about whether or not to dredge rivers, as seen last week.

River Nar's floodplain, Norfolk © Greg Armfield/WWF
River Nar’s floodplain, Norfolk © Greg Armfield/WWF

It is not a case of people or wildlife

We need to manage the problem at the source i.e. where the water falls – water must be slowed down on the hills and at the top of catchments. This can be done by improving agricultural and forestry practices, and can prevent water from accelerating downstream. The Blueprint for Water, a coalition group of environmental NGOs, feels this is a significant step towards reducing flood risk in some catchments. In 2014, the Blueprint, with the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental management (CIWEM), published Floods and Dredging – a reality check showing that dredging is not a universal solution to flooding.

Indeed, in the last two years, the Environment Agency and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, have also expressed concerns over dredging. They actually go further and say that, depending on local conditions, it can exacerbate flooding by simply speeding up the flow of water and pushing it downstream. This doesn’t solve the problem, it simply moves it on.

Healthy rivers for people and nature

It was positive to see fairly balanced media coverage throughout the flooding. Indeed, there is something of a consensus growing about the need to work with nature and not against it. Now is the time to think about how competing pressures on land use – for housing, infrastructure, energy, farming, recreation and nature – are managed given climate change and population growth will increase these pressures.

That’s really what we’re working towards through WaterLIFE – healthy rivers for people and nature. We want to see rivers functioning as they are meant to; and this means taking a wider view and looking at their whole catchment. Making one environmental improvement can lead to other benefits, such as contributing to flood alleviation.

Through the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), local communities can work with businesses and government at the catchment level (as opposed to simply focusing on small stretches of river) to enhance the natural environment and unlock many benefits – preventing floods, improving water quality and restoring rivers.

WaterLIFE is very much aligned with this approach. We’ve been working in demonstration catchments to implement on-the-ground improvements to the local water environment. Along the River Soar, one of our demo-catchments, partners on the ground are working with one farm to turn a small section of unproductive land into a wetland and investigate opportunities to install silt traps. These steps could help to prevent how much water moves downstream into Leicester. There’s more about this in a previous blog.

Part of Stoughton Estate farm
Partners on the ground are working with the Stoughton Estate to develop a small wetland using a section of unproductive farmland  © Hannah Blackburn

There is no silver bullet

With the government’s six-yearly plans for river health soon to be published now really is a crucial time to make sure our environment is managed sustainably. We will continue to work with all groups – government, businesses and communities – to pool resources and expertise and make sure we work within nature’s limits, and not against. Dredging isn’t the silver bullet to success. Indeed, there are no silver bullets for flooding. This is ultimately about understanding combinations of measures which provide what’s best for people and wildlife and will help to better manage devastating events such as the recent flooding.

Dominic Gogol, Water Policy Manager, WWF-UK