REVERSE-ENGINEERING THE ENVIRONMENT: URBAN FLOOD PLAINS

 

I grew up in a coastal area, which used to be prone to flooding until robust sea defences were built in the 70s and 80s.  My parents had many stories of homes being evacuated and the army being brought in to place sandbags, and so I grew up considering flooding to be a risk only from the sea.

But of course, it’s not that simple.  Humans have changed their environment in a number of ways for short-term gains, with long-term consequences.  Many cities were built on the banks of rivers, for military and trading purposes.  At the time, no-one would have considered how these cities would have grown and developed several hundred years into the future.  The building materials available back then, and the density of development, did not cause issues with drainage. While sophisticated irrigation systems can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians, human manipulation of watercourses was only recognised as problematic in the last century.

The industrial revolution brought with it expansion of urban areas, and engineering of the natural environment, in the form of canals and railway embankments.  Watercourses were altered to provide drainage ditches, forge canal routes, and to culvert rivers and streams in built-up areas.  The Victorians also created an extensive and robust sewer network, to serve the sanitary needs of large numbers of people in a small space.  Flood plains were drained for farmland, and streams, ditches, and rivers were dredged to ensure the swift transportation of water from the fields to the estuaries.

Things are going pretty well up until this point.  Britain is a superpower, and has invested wisely and intensively in its infrastructure.  The transport and water networks are more than adequate to serve the needs of 19th Century Britain, and are the envy of the world.

But some time between then and now, things have changed.  It could have been around the time of Ian Nairn’s OUTRAGE, with the ever-creeping sprawl into Subtopia, when our love for concrete surpassed our respect for nature.  Let’s not be wishy-washy tree-huggers about it; we can do whatever we like to circumvent Nature, but when we’re not quite smart or diligent enough to do it properly, Nature defeats us with a vengeance.  The climate, land, seas, rivers and skies have no emotion or compassion.  When the rain comes down, we get wet.  And there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Which is pertinent nowadays because there is mounting evidence that the recent extreme weather in the UK, and other parts of Europe, is part of a trend driven by anthropogenic climate change.  See?  Mess with Nature, it messes with you.

Manchester is a great example of this.  We even got our own Facebook campaign during the last flood, which seems a bit OTT, but it’s nice that they thought of us.  My road has been flooded three times in the last year.  I live in the city centre.  While no (human) lives have been lost so far, the scale of damage and inconvenience caused is astonishing.  It’s incredible to see a month’s worth of rain fall out of the sky in the space of ten minutes, but it’s even more incredible to see roads become rivers, and buildings that we considered city-proof be ankle deep in flood water.  And I do feel for the numerous businesses that have cellars.  That is one clean-up job I would not want to be around for.

Manchester is an average city, and you’d think a relatively uneventful one.  But we’re realising that floods like these are not just possible, but likely.  And the areas closest to watercourses are where most of the development is.  The Mark Addy was a marvellous riverside pub on the banks of the Irwell (Mark Addy was a local resident who saved many people from drowning in the Irwell), but in the second-to-last flood, it was damaged so badly by rising water, that the business cannot afford the repairs.  Residents living along the banks of the rivers and canals have been evacuated from their homes in some cases, and The Lowry Centre (which has bizarrely been renamed as some nondescript corporate throwaway) had the river lapping at its doors.  Manchester was not built for this, but ironically, it actually was.

I don’t think there is the political will to do anything about it.  Construction on flood plains will still get approved, and people will still choose to buy homes in totally inappropriate locations.  Decentralisation of the economy could go some way towards reducing the risks cities face (I’m looking at you, London), but this is a process that takes time, something that we do not have the luxury of.  We can now see the effects of climate change happening right now, in our lifetime.  It’s no longer a problem that we can put off until tomorrow, but we will.  As often seems the case in the UK, Something Will Be Done once services are stretched well beyond breaking point, and something catastrophic has happened.  There will be much surprise in parliament and in the media, as no-one will have expected this thing that scientists had told them, repeatedly, over the last 30 years, would happen.

I had an interesting chat with my dad about flooding and land management (I grew up in a farming community), and his views on how to solve flooding are similar to those of others in rural, UKIP-loving little Britain.  When he worked on farms, the marshes were drained to make way for pasture, and ditches and streams were regularly dredged to keep the water flowing away from the reclaimed land.  My dad is a huge fan of dredging, and doesn’t understand why some of the fields are left to flood, when we could be driving a whacking great ditch through there to sort it out.  Well, this approach works for those living upstream.  But drain the flood plains and deepen the rivers, and you turn a trickle into a torrent.  When that torrent reaches the concrete jungle just before the coast, the city can’t cope.  Rivers in pipes, collapsed and blocked drains, very little bare earth – the water has nowhere to go.

My dad isn’t a full-blown climate change denier, but he seems unconvinced of the seriousness of the situation.  This annoys me no end, because not only does he pooh-pooh my area of work and study, but he buys into two ideas that contribute to me getting wet feet!  Not cool, dad, not cool.

I made a video of the second flood (below).  I’m a bit apprehensive about how my amateur commentary will be received, but YouTube stars don’t all go into it prepared, right?  I was probably more embarrassed wandering around talking to myself and videoing puddles, TBH.

 

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