Time to restore nature’s flood defences

Time to restore nature’s flood defences

The Wildlife Trusts are calling on the Government to rebuild the country’s natural defences by investing in natural solutions for flood control, following the recent extreme weather conditions.
Potteric Carr flood waters (c) Matthew Roberts

Matthew Roberts

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“The reasons for the recent flooding are complex and it is important that local authorities and government agencies are not forced to rush into knee-jerk solutions, such as inappropriate dredging, which could end up causing more problems downstream. 

“It really is unacceptable to have had thousands of people in communities up and down the country devastated by these floods when we know there’s a better way to deal with flooding.  Nature has a vital role to play in the future. It is time to take a more imaginative approach; one which tackles a whole range of problems head-on.  Natural solutions such as peatland restoration, improved farmland management and wilder city greenspace will make rural and urban landscapes more absorbent and better able to deal with heavy rainfall as well as drought.”

Nature has a vital role to play in the future
Paul Wilkinson
Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts

What are the problems?

Our country’s natural defences (habitats, water catchments and river ecosystems) have been dismantled and destroyed. Ploughing-up of densely vegetated wild and natural habitats, over-grazing and the digging of drains over wide water catchment areas and straightening of rivers have all had disastrous consequences for our landscapes which now have a severely reduced capacity to absorb and store water. Draining and inappropriate dredging can speed up the rate of water run-off creating big problems downstream where rivers flow through towns.

• The country lacks an integrated approach to flood and drought alleviation, water quality issues and wildlife decline. The solutions to these challenges need to be woven together not tackled in separate silos.

• We have spent decades building in the wrong places. Floodplains can provide natural solutions for dealing with large amounts of water and are not suited to new housing or other built developments.

• The government agencies which deal with the natural environment, habitat management, water catchment and flood control – Defra, Environment Agency and Natural England - have had their budgets slashed.

• Urban areas lack the vegetated wild spaces needed to help retain water and prevent fast run-off. Poor planning, excessive hard landscaping and paved-over front gardens all add to cities’ inability to absorb water safely and release it slowly.

The Wildlife Trusts’ five point action plan for the Government:

1. FIX our broken natural ecosystems

It is vital to restore our natural habitats across whole landscapes to make them more robust and able to retain water and prevent fast surface water run-off. Restoring absorbent wild habitats - such as precious species-rich grassland, uplands, peatlands, hedgerows, woodlands and wetlands - is crucial to creating landscapes that can act as giant sponges, retaining water and releasing it slowly, thus preventing flash flooding after heavy rainfall. One way of achieving this is to ensure that direct payments made to farmers are linked to new ‘greening’ measures that will protect the grassland, peatland and wetland habitats that function to reduce flood impacts and slow down water flow into rivers. Defra must work with farmers and stakeholders to develop a clear strategy on flooding and farming, and move away from a focus on dredging and unsustainable land drainage.

2. Be WISER about addressing flooding, drought, decline of wild habitats, the natural environment and water quality issues together

The current approach is too fragmented and too heavily focussed on the old ways of managing the problem which can have negative impacts elsewhere for example hard flood defences which can cause rivers to fail to meet international requirements on healthy rivers. The restoration of nature must be at the heart of this approach if it is to work. This integrated approach needs to focus on natural solutions and involve partnerships. The authorities and agencies responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risks should prioritise natural and sustainable solutions in rural and urban areas, and along our coasts, taking a strategic approach and working closely with Local Nature Partnerships and Local Enterprise Partnerships to secure investment in natural solutions.*

3. STOP building on floodplains

Planning policy must rigorously prevail against urban floodplain development. Too often, concerns are dismissed with disastrous effect.

4. GIVE key agencies the resources needed

Positive action can only be achieved by funding appropriate levels of resources and staffing within the Environment Agency and Natural England. The Treasury needs to recognise that the economic benefits provided by these government agencies working at their full potential far outweigh the enormous costs of flood damage, severe drought and the hidden costs of species decline.

5. Make urban areas more RESILIENT

Towns and cities downstream of uplands that have been restored will greatly benefit from the increased capacity to store water upstream. But urban areas can also do much to prevent flooding in their immediate vicinity. These include Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDs), green roofs, reducing hard landscaping, instigating permeable surfaces and creating well-vegetated wild areas in communal outdoor space.