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Opinion - Flood Management

Opinion Modern flood management is about living with rising water, not blocking it out, writes Robert Barker.

When one thinks of flood defence, the story of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke to keep the town safe from the rising waters comes to mind. This story demonstrates the awareness that every Dutch person supposedly has of their fragile relationship with water and the importance of collective vigilance. Yet this is not particularly evident in Dutch culture today, in which the public often complacently believes it has mastered the water. But Dutch ministers and policymakers realise that the days of the great Delta Works, which followed the devastating floods of 1953 and saw the extensive construction of dykes and dams, are now over. A reformed approach to flood management is developing, with programmes like ‘Living with Water’ and ‘Room for the River’ promoting a collaborative approach between water management and development on land.
Similar changes have occurred here in the UK, and too often we forget that we have a pretty good pedigree of water management in this country. After all, in 1984 we completed the Thames Barrier, one of the most reliable flood defences in the world. It is still seen as pivotal in London’s defences for the next 100 years. As a nation we reclaimed most of the natural wetlands, such as the Somerset
Levels and the Fens, turning them into fertile agricultural land. We tamed the rivers, linked them with man-made canals, and built warehouses, mills, factories and power plants along them – all in the name of trade and industry. Unfortunately, these innovations and interventions have changed the natural control mechanisms of the rivers, leaving an inflexible system that is showing signs of strain from the increasingly variable British weather.
But the tide has changed and ‘flood defence’ is no longer the policy line – now we call it ‘flood management’. The Environment Agency has more influence in refusing irresponsible development, or at least some of it (13 major developments were still permitted against Environment Agency advice in
2006/7). This is as much out of a greater environmental sensitivity, typical of postindustrialised
nations, as it is a response to the improved understanding and respect for natural systems that we have developed.

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