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Water should be treated as a condition, not simply as a distant threat to our way of life

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The ‘fair-weather maps’ are at odds with the way water works, a process which needs to be understood in section

One of the few things that worry me about the future of London is the complacency with which we think about flood risk. There is usually a fashionable figure putting the risk of catastrophic flooding at one in 500 years, or one in 1,000 years. The number is always suspiciously precise, and even more suspiciously always has three or four noughts. All of which is evidence of the Department of Guesswork in action.

Unfortunately, we seem to imagine that a one-in-500-year risk means that the feared event will not happen until the 500 years are up. Then along come something like the Cumbria floods and we all wonder why we did not take more precautions sooner.

The answer lies in the all-too-human belief that it isn’t going to happen to us. This is, of course, entirely at odds with another belief ingrained in a large proportion of the population, which is that the unlikely could very well happen in the Lottery draw on Saturday night, where the odds against winning are about 14 million (six noughts) to one, but nevertheless it often happens.

So the phrase ‘it could be tonight’ may be cheery in relation to gambling, but very scary indeed in relation to an unanticipated conjunction of tide, wind, rain and, who knows, minor seismic activity. London carries on unabashed, confident that all that lowish-lying land on either side of the River Thames will absorb trouble if it happens, and after all such an event must be a long way off, surely?

These thoughts were reinforced at the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) national architecture conference in Brisbane a fortnight ago, not least because the city was subject to nightmare floods in December/January 2010/11, not dissimilar to what happened in Prague in 2002, and not unlike what nearly happened in Dublin a decade ago (with a taster last year).

In Brisbane, the argument about responsibility is ongoing, since the same organisation was responsible both for providing citizens with water and preventing floods. After a two-year drought, the authorities were more interested in the former than the latter, the indirect cause of the disaster.

However, as in New Orleans and Bombay/Mumbai, there is a strong case for saying that so-called ‘natural disasters’ are pretty much man-made. This was the contention, powerfully argued, by two AIA conference speakers, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, both of whom are now teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

Their starting point is that ‘water is everywhere before it is somewhere’, and that designers should be working withwater, rather than simply trying to contain or control it. That latter attitude is the product of surveyors’ and engineers’ attitudes, which are usually based on specific sites rather than the ‘ground’ which comprises areas that are situated way beyond a red-marked site line.

 ‘The view from above’ and the ‘fair-weather maps’ which are their consequence, are at odds with the way water works, a process which needs to be understood in section. ‘Engineers deal with probability, designers should think about possibility’ was the speakers’ nice way of describing it. The task was to hold water rather than to expel it unnecessarily (e.g. by using contour trenches, a form of ground-hugging aqueduct), to work with the monsoon rather than just treating it as an enemy.

On this analysis, the estuary condition is far more important than any line on a map, and ‘making peace with the sea’ is an acknowledgement that water is its own ground, to be understood beyond the line of specific ownerships.

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