I had thought I’d leave the floods in England to the English, sorely tempted as I was (though I have now given in to temptation!) to say the whatever my personal caveats are about the reliability of our very own Bureau of Meteorology, it is hard to think of a more inaccurate and unreliable weather forecaster than the UK’s Met Office, which predicted a rather drier than usual winter. Its lack of success in predicting British weather since it became captive to its models has been really impressive. And its boss, Dame Julia Slingo, keeps on suggesting that these floods are caused by global warning, a claim for which there is not a scintilla of evidence. (For those who like words and where they come from, scintilla is the Latin for ‘spark’, so that things or people that are said to ‘scintillate’ are metaphorically sparkling or twinkling. The early English meaning for ‘scintilla’ was something very small indeed, a minute particle, an atom.)
More about words. I wrote a piece about John Buchan some time ago which awoke lots of memories among the readers. In the fourth Richard Hannay novel, The Three Hostages, one of the clues involves a Norwegian saeter, which means a summer pasture — land that is only useful in summer. The county of Somerset, in the west of England, carries in its name the compression of ‘summer’ and ‘saeter’, in this case Anglo-Saxon and again meaning pasture. But whereas the Norwegian reference to summer implies winter, cold and snow, making the pasture unusable, in the case of Somerset the reason was that in winter much of the low-lying land, the Somerset Levels, was marshy and wet, and only dried out enough for pasture (and access) in summer.
As in the east of England, around The Wash, people have been trying to drain the the Somerset Levels since at least Roman times, with monasteries like Glastonbury doing some of the funding. Really serious draining endeavours began in the 17th century, with the arrival of Dutch engineers. But it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries, with the arrival of decent pumps to keep the water out, that the fields became permanently available for agriculture. The reclaimed land in the east is the most fertile in the UK, and is the source of most home-grown fruit and vegetables.
As with the Netherlands, maintaining the levee banks and pumps is a continuing and essential task, and we arrive, dear reader, at the point of this small essay. For it seems that the floods in Somerset at least, are not the result of global warming or ‘climate change’, but the outcome of the failure to ensure that these essential tasks have been carried out as they ought to have been. There are many sources for this story, but the one I have just read, published by Anthony Watts, is most absorbing. You can read it here, and go through the large number of links to other aspects of the issue. The Comments section has a number of most interesting contributions, and also arguments, about what did happen, and why it happened.
The crux of the story goes like this. Low-lying country has slow-moving rivers and streams, and they tend to silt up quite easily, especially after heavy rain. Drying such country involves cutting ‘drains’ across the land and exhausting the water from the drains into the nearest river. Pumps are used to lift the water up into the drains and sometimes from the drains into the rivers. Much of the land is below sea level, and needs constant pumping. You need to see it all as a system, and such a system requires engineers and a holistic approach to drainage that is 24/7, as the current idiom has it. You also need to keep cleaning the channels and dredging the rivers, or the water won’t get away quickly. You can see what happens to untended channels in any irrigation area.
It seems that over the past decade the actual control of the Somerset system has become somewhat dysfunctional. The overall responsibility is that of the Environmental Agency (EA), and it has a special feeling for endangered species, wildlife and the way things once were. So, as I understand it, the EA is rather opposed to pumps and pumping, and has closed some of the stations, or left them unmanned and at minimal levels of operation.
Wet weather with lots of rain is not exactly unknown in the UK, and I was there in London at the time of the 1987 hurricane, which was a scary experience. My guess is that after the rain and storms stop there is going to be an inquiry of some kind, and its report ought to be worth reading. We just don’t seem to learn, do we. Several thousand people live in the Somerset Levels, and if they had known that the maintenance of the pumping and drainage system was not to be in good order, they would have made a fuss. Actually, they made one in 2007, at the time of the last flood, but nothing happened in consequence.
We still allow people to build on flood plains, and we still construct large storage dams that hold back very large amounts of water, the release of which through a disaster would be catastrophic, as has happened in China. It is, after all, governments that make these things possible, and it seems to me that governments have an over-arching responsibility, a duty of care, to those who might be threatened if there were a major flood.
And the current flooding is not even the worst that has happened. Apparently there was an even greater one in the European winter of 1929/1930. All in all, a most interesting story.