Work with nature, not against it

The effects of urbanisation and industrialisation on the fragile balance between land and water have been known for many years. Ciwem's Nick Reeves believes a fundamental shift in attitudes and practices is needed to prevent these finite resources from irrevocable depletion.

In 1830, the radical politician, journalist and farmer, William Cobbett, published his book, Rural Rides. Peppered with scathing attacks on the political establishment, it records Cobbett’s travels around England at a time when industrialisation and the mechanisation of farming was changing English landscape.

England was still essentially a rural economy, yet what Cobbett saw almost 200 years ago are the issues that concern us today. He described North-South migration putting pressure on natural resources. He describes new unnatural farming practices causing high food prices, rural poverty and a growing gap between rich and poor. He also mentioned changes in climate and extremes of weather.

Fast-forward to 2006, when we found ourselves desperate for water, and 2007 when we are clearing up after severe flooding. The reasons are as clear to us as they were to Cobbett – and we are the culprits.

Urbanisation and car use are covering the land with impermeable asphalt and concrete. In rural areas, the push for improved productivity has caused wetlands and woodland to be used for cultivation. And, in our homes, the fashion for power showers and greener lawns has meant we use more water and flush more waste down our drains.

We forget at our peril the fragile nature of the relationship between water, land and life. Rather than speeding water into our drains, we should allow it to gradually percolate back into the ground to replenish the aquifers. We need to use our roofs, parks, gardens and public spaces to harvest rain.

We need to stop paving our gardens and make them porous again. We must reclaim our wetlands, flood plains and upland woodlands, and change the way we use nitrates and phosphates.

We need to separate foul water from stormwater and regard sewage as a safe, sustainable resource rather than waste. Most importantly, we must stop taking water for granted, and respect it as central to our lives.

Flooding is one of the most destabilising of natural disasters. Its effects can last for years. If you can no longer insure your home or business, the automatic reaction is to call for more and better flood defences, even though these are not the only, or most appropriate, solutions.

Drought and flood are parts of the same cycle – one bent out of shape by the way we live. Only 1% of the planet’s water is drinkable, and slowly recycles at its own rate. So, why is the freshwater cycle becoming increasingly rushed and unstable?

Climate change and its effect on the jet stream is part of the problem. Weather patterns are increasingly volatile, with large amounts of rain falling in short bursts between long periods of drought and evaporation.

Growing and unsustainable domestic demand is also to blame. More single-person dwellings (with more predicted by the demographers) and increased use of water by individuals is putting a strain on aquifers and rivers. Parking pressures have encouraged us to pave over our gardens and vast areas of our towns and cities.

Combined sewers that cannot cope with downpours overflow into rivers and waterways.

In the countryside, many years of subsidised land drainage and deep ploughing mean that polluted water and topsoil washes off farmland into artificially straightened rivers, eventually causing bottlenecks and flooding low-lying developments.

Nationally and globally, floods cause more damage than any other type of natural disaster.

Around 2 million households, 150,000 commercial properties and 1.4 million hectares of agricultural land in England alone are at risk; and the human misery caused is incalculable. What’s to be done?

First, we need to think harder about the places in which we create human settlements and plan better for them. The amount of development that ignores the basic constraints of water supply and flood risk is barmy.

But this will only slow the rate at which the problems get worse. Resurfacing hard areas with porous materials could make a big difference to the amount of water that runs off into storm drains.

We must protect our gardens; collectively, they amount to over 2,000km2 of open space, which are important for biodiversity, yet are designated as brownfield sites.

Secondly, we must also look outside urban settlements. In the last 50 years or so, successive governments have subsidised farmers to encourage them to use marginal land to maximise production. Wetlands have been drained, wooded slopes cleared and flood meadows embanked. Instead, rainfall should be recaptured in upland woodlands and wetlands, then gradually released into meandering rivers and stored at times of peak rainfall in flood meadows and marshes.

Water companies in England and Wales spend up to £313M a year dealing with nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants – resources that could be better used tackling pollution at source. Indeed, some water companies have acquired critical upland sites within their catchments to allow the water to soak naturally through to the rivers. But Defra needs to be persuaded that to use farm subsidies to reward farmers who do not over-drain their land, and who instead allow water to permeate into the aquifers.

We can all make a difference in the home too. Water-efficient design and retrofitting of water efficient devices can reduce consumption by half. German households use one-third less water than homes in the UK.

Compulsory water metering with protection for the vulnerable would make us think more about the amount of water we use, and save us money.

Water management is one of the most pressing issues around. To lessen the see-saw between drought and flood, there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking – to use water more carefully and slow its journey from sky to land to sea. In 1830, William Cobbett would have understood.

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