The Somerset Levels have now been under water for weeks. In fact, it is difficult to remember a time when one did not turn on the UK news to be confronted with images of villagers traveling from place to place by boat, livestock stranded on the few ‘high’ areas of farms and, more than anything, angry residents launching verbal attacks on the Environment Agency or Mr Paterson. It is true that the Levels flood every year and those who live and work in the region know and respect this reality. However, the experience this year has been beyond any instance that people can remember before. Many questions have been raised, many directed at the Agency (EA) and governmental department (DEFRA) responsible for mitigating the effects of flooding. The rhetoric has been strong but unfortunately, as I see it, the deed is done. Once the land is flooded and the rains keep coming, there is little one can do.
The issue of preventative dredging and clearance of ditches and rivers is however very important. With more of these ‘freak’ events predicted for the future (indeed instances such as the flooding this year could be set to be ‘normal’ in future winters) we need to be better prepared and mitigate the effects as much as is in our power to do so. If the Agency responsible is struggling with its increasingly limited resources, farmers should be incentivised (monetarily if possible) to ensure that smaller water systems are clear. Greater amounts of funding should be put into concrete action in terms of ensuring flooding prevention systems are kept in a good state. ‘Soft’ defences should be trialled and invested in just as much as ‘hard’ defences and trial evacuation and prevention ‘rehearsal’ days should take place to ensure local people are prepared and ‘crisis plans’ put in place to ensure the vulnerable are not as ‘at risk’ as they may be now.
11,500ha (28,400 acres) of land on the Somerset Levels have been submerged over the past few weeks, meaning a troublesome year ahead for farmers, before it has barely started. We are not only facing a humanitarian disaster on the Levels, with the Red Cross delivering firewood and other supplies to much in need residents, but an animal welfare crisis also with large numbers of livestock being kept in confined spaces as a result. There is unfortunately little that farmers can do and it will be a waiting game until we see the light. We can only hope that a sustained ridge of high pressure comes over the UK, giving a chance for some of the water to escape and for dredging to commence. In a quote from the Prime Minister via farmers Weekly online we heard that “It’s not currently safe to dredge in the Levels, but I can confirm that dredging will start as soon as it is practical, as soon as the waters have started to come down,” a response to a question from Taunton MP Jeremy Browne on Wednesday.
It could be argued that this is another sign and warning that we must evolve to our changing climate but, climate change issues aside, we must accept that we have always faced flooding issues in the UK. Indeed, most large settlements were originally built on fertile floodplains. The difference now comes in our attitude towards flooding and the value of the assets at stake. We must accept that flooding will sometimes take place, perhaps regularly in some areas, and instead of believing we can prevent it (which we can’t) we must try and mitigate the effects on the lives of people and animals as much as we can.