Storm Desmond brought record levels of rain, personal tragedy and misery alongside economic threat. 5.2 million people in the UK live at risk of flooding and 2.6 million live on land that will be below sea level or suffer chronic flood levels by the end of the century. We are in the top 20 most at risk countries.
The first duty of government is national security, protecting its people. Flooding represents an increasing national security threat. In Harvard University history professor Charles Maier’s definition of 1990, national security is: “best described as a capacity to control those domestic and foreign conditions that the public opinion of a given community believes necessary to enjoy its own self-determination or autonomy, prosperity and well being.”
Domestic floods in Cumbria (2005, 2009, 2015), South Midlands (2007), Cornwall (2010), Wales, Yorkshire and eastern Scotland (2012), South West England, the Midlands, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland (2012), East Coast (2013) have threatened the self-determination, autonomy, prosperity and well being of people in those places.
The government will rightly spend over £3bn to defend against terrorism which kills people. The government will reluctantly spend £383m per year to defend against floods which also kills people. This is not an either-or decision. We need to do both. Major storms kill innocent people as randomly as someone with a gun or bomb.
Here are five suggestions on how the UK could better cope with the rising probability of extreme weather and heavier rainfall.
1) Make COP21 really work. The world and UK need a binding agreement to bring global warming to 1.5 degrees or below. COP21 needs to commit to 100% renewables and for the rich world to fund the developing world’s leapfrog towards renewables.
2) Increase spending on UK flood defences. Current plans are based on an increase in temperature of 2 degrees, when COP21 looks likely to actually deliver 2.7 degrees. If one in a hundred year storms are now happening every few years, we must prepare appropriately. The UK is going to spend £383m per year on new flood defences. The Dutch government, already enjoying incredibly sophisticated flood defences, will still spend £858m per year.
3) Stop building property on flood plains. It’s plain stupid. Just make it illegal. In 2014, figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday revealed that [in 2013] local councils allowed at least 87 planning developments involving 560 homes to proceed in England and Wales in areas at high risk of flooding, that were formally opposed by the Environment Agency. 200,000 homes were built on flood plains between 2001 and 2011.
4) Ban any development with inadequate flood mechanisms (including hard surface drives). If you’re adding to the demands on our water infrastructure by removing natural drainage land, you should pay for greater water infrastructure.
5) Introduce local tax incentives for flood defences. These can be community-led and or outside investor-led. We don’t want to adopt the old-Dutch system of “Whom the water hurts, he the water stops.” We need a more collective response. In the face of an increasing threat combined with government underspending and inaction, we should incentivise and empower local communities to protect themselves.