28 Mar 2014

Why water is now the biggest threat to our island nation

As I write, hundreds of scientists are sitting in Yokohama still wrangling over the detail in their latest report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This volume deals with what impacts climate change will bring to the planet and what challenges we face adapting to it.

The squabbling in Japan is over big questions like the economic impacts of global warming. Also, whether there are some pressures poorer countries simply can’t adapt to and therefore will need to be remunerated for by richer nations which arguably caused the warming.

But when it comes to the major threats facing the UK there is no real argument. The evidence is fairly clear that extreme weather events like floods and droughts will likely become more frequent and more intense. Winter storms could become more powerful. And the threat from damaging tidal surges will increase due to gradually increasing sea levels.

In a nutshell, it’s water that will become our island nation’s biggest problem.

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If that’s the case, the risks from climate change won’t be some exotic new phenomenon. They look just like the winter we’ve just been through.

And one thing the winter threw into sharp relief is just how well-equipped we are to cope with climate change.

Rethinking problems

Some problems will simply require money being thrown at them – like keeping railway infrastructure running in heavy rain, snow or heatwaves.

Others are ripe for rethinking. When it comes to coastal defences, experience is teaching planners that some “hard” defences against floods and storm surges will simply be too expensive to maintain in light of sea levels rise and intense rainfall events.

In this case, “soft” defences that make more use of open spaces to absorb water could be an important adaptive strategy.

‘Softer’ strategies

I’ve just come back from the north Norfolk coast. Here the Environment Agency is considering several schemes to replace increasingly vulnerable flood defences with “softer” strategies to allow areas of wetland to absorb the impact of tidal surges.

There is some local acceptance of the increasing threat from coastal flooding. But there’s understandable anxiety, too, about experiments involving the removal of tidal barriers that have kept communities dry for decades, sometimes centuries.

In some cases coastal planners have allowed communities at direct risk to move. Houses there have been steadily falling into the sea in the Norfolk town of Happisburgh. Here a pilot programme allowed for the purchase of properties about to fall off the rapidly eroding cliffs and for the construction of new ones on the other side of the village.

Adapting to change

“If you’re going to stop defending a community, you’ve got to provide a mechanism that allows them to adapt to climate change,” said Malcolm Kerby, of the National Voice of Coastal Communities. “That way in 200 years time there will still be a Happisburgh.”

And it’s here where the focus falls on those in charge – particularly the Department for Environment, which has the prime responsibility for adapting to climate change. Funding for climate change and flood defences has suffered as a result of budget cuts. Dedicated staff working on climate adaptation at Defra have gone from 38 in 2009 to just six in 2014.

“In the 15 years I’ve been doing this, the government has had its head firmly in the sand.” said Kerby. But, he argues, it’s not just a question of spending money on the realities of a changing climate. It’s all about attitude: “I tell you what’s got to change. We’ve got to go from being reactive, to being pro-active.”

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