Reinventing Noah’s Ark: Is Nature Conservation the Solution to Flooding?

Our event of Trinity 2014 looked into an issue that had been at the forefront of news that previous winter; namely flooding and flood control. With increasing urbanisation along the banks of rivers, the threat of flooding and increased damage from these events is a very real problem when it comes to urban (as well as rural) planning. We aimed to explore the alternatives to hard engineering (e.g. walls/ flood barriers/ etc) in tackling this problem and to see whether there is space for nature in these plans.

Our first speaker of the evening was Peter Smith, Chief Executive of the Wildwood Trust, which aims to help restore or reintroduce native species to Britain from their site in East Kent. He first stressed how the seemingly increasing levels of flooding are not due to changes in rainfall – in fact there have been no apparent changes within the last 100 years – but is  rather due to the huge transformation that has occurred to land use all along the water courses. Essentially we have “sheep-wrecked” our uplands through land clearance to generate larger farming areas, with increased numbers of drainage ditches helping to reduce the water catchment of these areas. Simultaneously we have “straight-jacketed” our water courses through the removal of wetlands and meanders, shooting water straight along the rivers towards our villages, towns and cities.

The Blue Room, Netherlands

He raised the interesting example of De Blauwe Kamer, or The Blue Room, in the town of Rhenen in
the Netherlands. In the past, both summer and winter flooding overcame all the defences the town
could employ, resulting in damage and death. Their solution to this was to rewild a section of
land (The Blue Room) that lay upstream of the town, by recreating the wetlands that were once present, thus acting as a sponge and helping to manage water levels within the town. As well as
this role of ecosystem management, the reserve has also become one of the most spectacular
nature development projects in the central Netherlands.

A similar technique could work within the UK. In fact in Belford, Newcastle the Artificial Beaver
Project undertakes soft engineering to prevent flooding through the creation of imitation
beaver structures, such as fallen trees, ponds and dams.

I’m all for such plans, however, wouldn’t it be much better to just have beavers creating such structures in their day to day lives, rather than making imitation ones? Luckily Peter and the Wildwood project agree, and have reintroduced beavers into the Ham Fen Nature Reserve, Kent (alongside other animals such as the Konik Ponies) in order to create a much more natural wetland environment. These wetlands, as well as serving a role in water catchment, could also play a pivotal role in the future for carbon storage, helping to deal with increased carbon emissions from modern society, as well being released from soils in changing land use. However, you know what is better for carbon storage than wetlands? Peatlands. And you’ll never guess… Beavers could be our saviours here as well. Three cheers for the beaver!

Dominic restocking the Thames

Our second speaker was Dominic Martyn, from the Environment Agency, who presented us with the facts of flooding (such as shockingly over 90% of the River Thames has been modified!) and the solutions that could help combat it. Now dredging always seems to be the go to solution for flood prevention, however according to the CIWEM Dredging Report, while dredging can and does play a vital part, what we really should be considering is working with natural processes and making space for water.

Dominic stressed how a softer approach to flood management, working with the local ecology and in synergy with other projects along the watercourse, is necessary to help restore natural function. He raised examples of where the Environment Agency has been working to deliver on-the-ground projects, such as workshops or community days, to get the local community involved within the restoration of their local river. In fact, the flood risk that such water courses pose actually is very good at providing the opportunity to implement new development projects in order to restore the river, with a multitude of benefits ranging from an improved appearance to a greater community interaction. By getting people involved on a local scale, and getting their views upon the aims of the project, means that the upkeep of such projects is much more likely to occur.

However it is not all plain sailing. Such schemes are much more difficult to implement within rural areas due to the higher amount of privately owned land. And while abroad compulsory purchase occurs, if it is necessary for flood prevention, Dominic explained how this is unlikely to occur within the UK. Prompting Peter to comment that we shouldn’t be asking for permission, we should be telling.

Overall, this was a very successful event, with an optimistic outlook to the future of flood prevention and protection. It seems that not only is there a place for nature conservation, but nature conservation may actually be a solution in itself! It’s not all doom and gloom, eh?

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