Ordinary Britons have so far coped admirably with widespread flooding. But the rain is still falling
JOHN LEE likes to tinker with vehicles: his four-wheel-drive resembles a tractor more than a car. “It’s watertight,” he beams. For the past week he has been driving down sodden lanes in Surrey, south-west of London, transporting people and medicines. Flooding is a misery, but at least it provides an opportunity to show off a set of wheels.
Much of southern England is now sodden, and parts of the Thames Valley and Somerset are simply underwater (see map). In Shepperton, a town in Surrey, the village green used for the summer fete is best reached by canoe. In Devon a sea wall has collapsed, shutting down a vital railway link to the south-west. As The Economist went to press 16 severe flood warnings had been issued by the Environment Agency, a much-criticized quango that oversees flood defense.
Floods are like snowflakes, says Andrew McKenzie of the British Geological Survey, a research body: none is quite like another. Rivers can overflow, as in Somerset. Groundwater can flood, as in the Thames Valley. Tides can surge, inundating villages, as they have in Lincolnshire. Rain can pound down too quickly to be absorbed. None of these is rare on its own. But over the past two months Britain has been subject to the whole lot, often in combination, over a large area.
Last month was the wettest January in southern England since 1910. The rain was unusually prolonged, falling on 23 days out of 31, a four-decade record. Rain continues to fall on this sodden ground. As a result, the Thames river has been running high for longer than at any point since records began in 1883. The calamitous floods that struck England in 1947, by contrast, were over much more quickly.
Fingers have been pointed at the government, for squeezing the Environment Agency’s budget. According to the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body, government funding for flood management between 2011 and 2015 will be less than in the previous four years, even in cash terms. The maintenance budget was cut particularly savagely, says Iain Sturdy of the Somerset drainage board.
Both the National Union of Farmers and local MPs insist that Somerset’s waterways ought to have been dredged more regularly: parts of one river there are down to as little as two-thirds of its capacity in the 1960s. But the sheer amount of rain makes it highly unlikely that dredging would have prevented, or even much delayed, these floods. Dredging can make flooding worse, by conveying water to the next town more quickly.
Meanwhile many flood defenses are quietly doing their jobs fairly well. In Bridgwater, a town in Somerset, a robust flood wall and large tidal enhancements downstream have so far kept the peaks of high tide at bay. The Jubilee river, an overflow channel for the Thames that opened in 2002, is protecting parts of the south-east. As some people in Surrey point out bitterly, the Thames Barrier has kept flood water out of nearly all of London. By contrast, in 1947 about 27,000 houses in Britain were reported flooded and perhaps a million Londoners lost their water supply. Another flood in 1953 was even worse: a huge storm hit the east coast, killing 307 people.
Such events have been too easily forgotten by a more transient society, argues Terry Marsh, a hydrologist. Flooding ought to be an accepted, if very rare, part of life. “Even in places called Watery Lane the message is not absorbed,” he says. West of London the Thames “is exercising its natural sovereignty,” he reckons.
The waterlogged will not be comforted by that thought. Nor have politicians and officials provided much cheer, or even clarity, to local people. Despite many visits by the prime minister and other politicians to the Somerset Levels, residents there feel out of the loop. The first public meeting in Surrey was set up by Matthew Want, a resident, rather than by the council or the Environment Agency. “Without us there would be nothing,” says Jason McCarthy, another mechanic in Shepperton who has been driving damp locals to and fro.
Still, people have mostly coped well. It helps that Surrey and Somerset are not poor: locals know whom to ring to complain. Many are turning to social media. Facebook groups act as message-boards, with offers of spare rooms and dog-sitters posted alongside updates on flooded roads. A church in Shepperton has set up a night shelter to rival the council-run one. “Community looks after itself,” says Chris Murdoch, who runs a maritime shop in Surrey. Others have chipped in from farther afield: Khalsa Aid, a charity run by Sikhs from Slough, Birmingham and Leicester, helped lay sandbags in Somerset.
Community spirit is going to have to sustain the south for a long time yet. The Met Office, Britain’s weather forecaster, reckons the region will be battered by rain over the next few weeks—though possibly less frequently, or with more intervals between showers. Even if the rain stops the floods could linger. In the damp year of 2001 places like Henley-on-Thames were still flooded by the spring, says Mr Marsh. And the inundation this year is much heavier. All of which almost justifies a new four-wheel-drive.