Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bringing Our Rivers Back To LIfe

A paradigm shift in our thinking about river management

Severe flooding in Britain is now an annual event and the frequency of such inundations is only likely to increase in the years ahead due to climate change.

The management of our rivers is in the hands of the Environment Agency, an organisation dominated by engineers with a mere sprinkling of conservationists. Thus it should come as no surprise that the majority of solutions proposed for dealing with flooding involve large-scale construction projects. The funding of such projects mainly comes from DEFRA but such funds, whilst large, are still limited and all projects have to line up in a queue for government cash.

The Treasury, recognising that there is not enough money to go round, have devised a cell system, based on rateable property values. Each flooded community or area is broken down in this manner and the cells are prioritised. Thus rather than managing the problem as a whole, funding is made available for one or two cells at a time, thus providing some evidence of activity whilst obviously failing to deal with the root causes of the problem.

Norman Baker, MP for Lewes and Environment Spokesman for the Lib Dems, told me, when I raised this issue with him, that Environment Minister Elliot Morley had told him that the cell system was, in his opinion, rubbish.

To understand the real solution to the problem, one must look back to the history of river management. In general and in brief, all the rivers in Britain were progressively canalised and engineered from the 1700s onwards, generally being straightened by removing meanders and dredged in order to make navigation easier.

In addition, through the establishment of Drainage Boards, farmers were able to further interfere with the water table, canalising subsidiary streams and rivulets on their land in order to drain water off into the main river as quickly as possible. Thus what used to be living rivers are now little more than drains, designed to swiftly move water from source to mouth and rendering them unable to function efficiently in times of flooding.

The other prime cause of flood damage is development of the flood plain. Pre-Neolithic times, every floodplain had a forest, the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of a rain forest, biodiverse environments rich in species. The first farmers began clearing trees and vegetation from these areas to gain access to the rich fertile floodplain soil and, this process has accelerated over the centuries until, in our present day in Britain, there are just a handful of genuine patches of original floodplain forest left.

In modern times, the accelerated and short-sighted development of floodplains for housing and industrial purposes has exacerbated the problem. In addition, as towns have grown, greater areas have been tarmaced, thus increasing the volume of water run-off which previously would have been absorbed in the soil.

Having consulted widely with leading experts in both Britain and Europe and having seen at first hand the kind of landscape scale riverine conservation projects being carried out in the Netherlands, it is clear to me that we need to make a dramatic shift in our thinking towards a system of sustainable river management and natural flood control.

Interestingly, this paradigm shift has already happened in coastal management due to expert advice from the oceanographers at Southampton University. They demonstrated beyond question that we could no longer build our way out the problem. There was not enough money available to do that even if it was a sensible option. Rather than trying to hold the sea back, King Canute-like, we should allow the sea to inundate where it obviously wants to and, instead, compensate landowners and householders for their losses.

A new system of management for rivers naturally follows in the flow of the EU Water Framework Directive [see below], which provides for a continental-wide system of control centred around the basic unit of the river catchment system – that is the entire tree-like branching structure of the main river and all its thousands of tributaries which generally extend over a large area.

Under this EU law, every catchment area in England must be assessed – a huge task that has hardly begun – to provide a proper holistic environmental overview of the river system and to enable an appropriate river management plan for each river to be devised.

Overall, there are a palette of possibilities that can be employed to provide natural approaches to flood control and to massively increase the biodiversity of riverine environments.

Firstly we have the art and science of ‘river restoration’ – retro-engineering the river back to a more natural shape and structure by, amongst other techniques, reinstalling meanders, developing bank and gully systems, and removing banks back to the edges of field to enable the creation of ‘washlands’ for holding flood water.

Secondly, we need to restore both riverine forest and wetlands where possible. These incredibly rare and important biodiverse environments have a top priority for conservation funding and will provide important river management functions as well helping with flood control and providing an environment for a myriad of rare and important species.

Obviously, in some places, construction may be needed. Taking another leaf from the Dutch, currently engaged in a wide variety of huge schemes to allow their major rivers to ‘breathe’, we need to follow their lead in developing flood-proof housing and sustainable drainage. We need also to ban as much future development on flood plains as possible.

Such tremendous and exciting possibilities are within our grasp but, as with so many issues, the first blockage in the system is a dam of outmoded thinking, deep-seated prejudices and widespread public ignorance. Pressure should be brought on DEFRA and the Environment Agency to urge the adoption of this new paradigm which has huge benefits and opportunities. Let’s stop building walls and start bringing our rivers back to life.


The Water Framework Directive (WFD), which came into force on 22 December 2000, is the most substantial piece of EC water legislation to date. It requires all inland and coastal waters to reach "good status" by 2015. It will do this by establishing a river basin district structure within which demanding environmental objectives will be set, including ecological targets for surface waters. The full text of the Directive can be found here

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