Extreme Weather Testing Urban Resiliency Around Globe
Just outside this pretty village in southwest England is a steep, grassy mound called Burrow Mump. From the ruined church on the top, you can see miles of what look like shallow lakes but what are really submerged wheat fields and pasture.
This is the Somerset Levels, a vast expanse of low-lying land, 25 square miles of which has been under water this winter, according to the government. Hundreds of years ago, the Levels were wetlands, but they were drained with a network of canals and pumping stations to create farms. This year’s winter, already the wettest since record-keeping began in the 18th century, overwhelmed the system, inundating farms, disrupting lives and leaving a handful of villages either flooded or cut off.
“We have been living in this weird world since New Year’s Eve,” said Rebecca Horsington, whose family’s 250-acre farm near the village of West Zoyland has 100 acres submerged. “It is very frustrating that none of the authorities are doing anything about it.”
In 2012, when there was also flooding, Ms. Horsington helped found an organization, the Flooding on the Levels Action Group, to “badger the authorities and try to embarrass them into doing something.”
After the flooding this winter extended for weeks, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron turned for help to the masters of water management, the Dutch. Last Sunday, Jan Groen, an engineer for the Dutch company Van Heck, was at Dunball, on the edge of the Levels, tending eight pumps the size of small vans that he had helped bring from the Netherlands and install in a matter of days in early February.
The pumps lift the swirling waters from an 18th-century drainage canal over a dam and into the tidal marshes beyond. They are helping to draw down the water, but another month’s pumping will be required. Coming from the Netherlands, where dealing with water is a refined science, Mr. Groen remarked on the antiquated state of flood management in Britain. “They are going to have to spend more money,” he said.
The number of homes and businesses that have been flooded on the Levels could be as few as 40 or as many as 150, depending on whether you believe the government or the activists. But even the effect of widespread flooding across Britain this winter is small scale compared with the devastation Typhoon Haiyan inflicted on the Philippines last year or the damage that Hurricane Sandy did to the East Coast of the United States in 2012.
Yet Somerset may be a microcosm for the dilemmas that Britain and other countries are likely to face in the future as sea levels rise and climate change accentuates unusual weather.
As in other places around the world, people in Britain have chosen to live near water, where damaging floods may occur and are likely to become more frequent. “You often hear people saying, ‘You shouldn’t build on flood plains,’ but many cities are on flood plains,” said Roger A. Falconer, a professor of water management at Cardiff University in Wales, not far from the Levels. “Where do you draw the line?”
Professor Falconer doesn’t see any easy way to prevent flooding on the Levels in future years. Yielding to local demands, the government has agreed to pay four million pounds, or $6.7 million, for dredging the River Parrett, the main channel through the area. But Professor Falconer is skeptical: Because the Levels are so flat, dredging “may not make a big flow difference,” he said.
Another solution, buying the farmers out and letting the land return to nature, seems unlikely. “The land is quite resilient,” Ms. Horsington said. “It will recover.”
Many Britons live in places vulnerable to flooding, and Britain’s population and wealth are concentrated around the Thames River. A record number of closings this year of the Thames Barrier — steel gates that span the river downstream from London — have helped protect the city from major flooding, but the Thames and its tributaries have made unwelcome incursions into the suburbs.
Britain over all has taken a beating from the rains and vicious Atlantic storms that have battered the coasts. More than 6,000 properties have been flooded this winter, according to the government.
Bad years like this one in Britain are likely to become more frequent, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. Brenden Jongman, a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University Amsterdam, writes that “extreme flood losses could more than double in frequency” in Europe by 2050.
In an interview, Mr. Jongman said flood damage in Europe, which averages five billion euros, or $6.9 billion, a year but can vary widely, was likely to increase to almost €24 billion a year by 2050. While much of that increase would be because of people’s growing wealthier and living in more expensive homes, more frequent and intense storms from climate change would also be a big factor, he said.
Mr. Jongman said spending money on flood defenses like dikes and other water management systems would be effective, possibly preventing as much as eight times their cost in damage. “The trouble is the investment has to be made now,” he said, while the disaster being guarded against will come later, if ever.