California is experiencing a severe drought. In the United Kingdom, it’s been raining for the past few weeks. And it’s record-breaking, natural wonder-toppling, train-halting rain. And more rain and flooding events are expected this week.
According to the UK’s Environment Agency:
“England faced the wettest January since 1766, and with the ground already saturated, further rainfall is increasing flood risk across the country, especially in the south. Successive bands of rain which have been affecting the country all week are expected to continue until at least Tuesday, causing river levels to rise along the River Thames, the Severn and the Dorset Stour as well as across most of the south west, central southern and south east England.”
‘…the variable UK climate meant there was “no definitive answer” to what caused the storms. But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change… We have records going back to 1766 and we have nothing like this…We have seen some exceptional weather. We can’t say it is unprecedented but it is exceptional.’
The government and communities have been working tirelessly to respond to the flood risks (including the health risks of raw sewage seeping into flood waters). The Royal Marines have also played a very active role in the cross-government, multi-agency relief effort in Somerset. So has Prince Charles. But despite the preparations, weather events and natural disasters can have political consequences, and in the UK the finger-pointing has already begun. In an article titled “How long will the UK government keep its head above flood water?” Damian Carrington of the Guardian looks at recent budget cuts for flood defenses as one reason why communities were not adequately prepared. The UK Environment Agency chair has warned of “difficult choices” in deciding what to protect. Some are suggesting that protecting homes over farmland could hurt food security. The Environment Agency recently reported that No 10 Downing Street, home to the UK Prime Minister, is at risk of flooding. Choices, indeed.
To anticipate such events, the UK government runs what is called the Foresight Programme. Its aim is to help “the UK Government to think systematically about the future… about how to ensure today’s decisions are robust to future uncertainties.” One study being conducted as the flooding continues is a Foresight project on Flood and Coastal Defence, which has “produced a challenging and long-term (30 – 100 year) vision for the future of flood and coastal defence in the whole of the UK that takes account of the many uncertainties…”
It is not clear what role such reports have played in UK preparedness strategies thus far. What is clear is that nations can learn from each other, and that the time horizon for studies looking at climate-related flood risks, and for the deployment of resources for building up flood defenses, should be moved forward. Once the waters settle, the UK would do well to take a look at lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy in the United States, and the U.S. political debate over flood insurance. The U.S., the UK and countries around the world could also do more to get beyond the politics of weather events (and austerity), and start taking preparation for these record-breaking risks seriously.