Submitted by James Dalton on Fri, 06/27/2014

Flooding is the most common hydrological hazard – with global economic losses from floods averaging US$3 billion a year, predicted to become US$1 trillion a year by 2050. Over the last 100 years they have also been the most fatal disasters, ruining families, communities, and at times, setting back national development and progress.

A recent study suggests that the annual cost of flooding across Europe could become €23.5 billion by 2050. At current prices this represents more than the annual GDP of 93 countries. And in reality, it’s an insurance bill. It is an astounding number given the human, financial, and technical capacity that exists across Europe. Two-thirds of these total costs are due to socio-economic growth – we have as a continent more people living in flood-prone areas, and everyone has more to lose because of higher incomes.

It’s a point echoed by Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK Environment Agency following the devastating floods in the UK this winter and spring. ‘Think about the risk that your property faces’ he said. Not an easy task if you have little choice where you live, but equally it’s a logical question. Ten years ago we bought a house in the UK, but only after my wife, who worked for the Environment Agency at the time, had checked out the online flood risk maps.

The Environment Agency (EA) has come under a lot of pressure in the UK for how it deals with protection from flooding. Critics – understandably those immediately affected, sometimes disastrously – have voiced their anger at the lack of river dredging and protection, a lack of finance available for the EA to ‘do their job’. It has also provided a political platform, with the Environment Secretary and Communities Secretary both venting steam – calling the lack of dredging, in particular in the Somerset Levels, a ‘grave mistake’.

George Monbiot, well known for his opinions, points out the complex policy environment that actually degrades Britain’s countryside, exacerbating flooding – maybe. He highlights in this article that the largest single farm payment under the Common Agricultural Policy requires farmers to adhere to certain conditions, one of these being to remove ‘unwanted vegetation’ in order to allow a payment to be received for productive land that is not ‘farmed’. His article highlights reforestation practices in Pontbren at the headwaters of the river Severn, and that better land use practices can reduce flood peaks – the time when floodwaters reach their highest depth. This highlights the natural role our environment plays in capturing, storing, conveying and cleaning water, as well as moving fertile sediment.

Yet the UK is investing in improving the natural capacity of river basins to reduce flood impacts. Called a ‘radical landscape experiment’ by the Guardian, it is a natural infrastructure approach to managing flooding, bringing together many science disciplines and practitioners. It takes a broader perspective to managing river basins through seeing the basin as one connected system, with cause and effect happening many miles away as a consequence of poor land uses, or by simply putting too many barriers (such as buildings) in the way of floods. Despite this, the funding for these types of new approaches in the UK, which are not so new in many other countries, is paltry.

As one scientist said: ‘If scientists are not allowed to engage in the debate at this interface then you devalue their contribution to policy making and undermine a major source of carefully considered and evidence-based advice’.

Sound advice – given the EA spent £45 million last year as the water regulator to improve river flow across England, under its mandate to ‘protect and improve the environment’ – and despite the Communities Secretary saying ‘we are sorry we took their advice, we thought we were dealing with experts’. Well, in fact you probably were, Mr Secretary.

Media coverage of the flooding highlights the continuing challenge of science trying to inform policy, but also adds in the often forgotten political element. Politically, concrete shows ‘progress’ – it pushes departmental budgets up, it requires ‘an opening ceremony’, maybe even a name on a plaque, and it leaves a political legacy. Improving land management, and restoring forests and other habitats doesn’t give you the same political ‘oompf’ – especially given short political lifetimes.

This conflict between the role of science to inform government as a policy maker – despite the science being politically unappetising is not new. The quote above is not from the floods of 2014, but from 2009 when the Chief Drugs Adviser to the UK Government was sacked by the Home Secretary for criticising government policies. It’s a long story, but politicians at the time didn’t like the message from their Scientific Adviser – sound familiar?
The challenge here is culture – in terms of who manages and deals with flooding, who pays for it, and whose advice to follow. Even with the additional £270 million of emergency funding from the UK Government to repair flood defences, the £45 million spent last year by the EA is insignificant when compared to the many billion Euros spent in the Netherlands to protect the country from flooding – using a back-to-nature approach. What is so remarkable is that this is not new in the UK – work initiated in 2000 at Abbotts Hall Farm in Essex was groundbreaking in that it broke open hard sea defences to re-create saltmarsh and natural coastal floodplain.
So what does this really tell us?

It reminds us that we do have experience across Europe to deal with floods, but that politically it is difficult to mobilise the science and the knowledge. As Colin Thorne reminds us – it is often not difficult in accepting new ideas, but in letting go of old ones – when it comes to managing floods.
It also reminds us that politicians may not agree with their scientists. Science should perhaps get better at strategically influencing, rather than expecting policy makers to read their data and recommendations and act upon them. The science-policy and political interface adds an extra dimension. Science on its own is less likely to lead to change, and is more likely to lead to decision support systems on computers no-one turns on.

Equally, policy dominated by politics is not policy at all but a manifesto, and where is science in this doctrine? Policy without scientific evidence would certainly make me invest in an insurance plan, because it’s a gambler who believes in flood advice from politicians.
Evidence from IUCN Members could certainly help the UK learn lessons on flooding, and support the EA as they grapple with the political fallout. In the IUCN Water Programme we focus on the role of natural infrastructure as a nature-based solution for climate change adaptation. Nature is our most valuable asset and provides us with multiple services – we should reap the rewards from it – by investing in it.