RECENT STORMS have opened up opportunities to think creatively about living with environmental uncertainty, says Professor Robert Tregay.
Climate change is natural and continuing. Unpredictability and extreme events in natural systems are normal, including the flooding of floodplains. Worse events than the current storms have occurred in the historic past. However, increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the past century have probably increased the frequency, severity and risk of future extreme weather events.
A primary cause of increased flooding was forest clearance in pre-Roman to medieval times; forests and forest soils absorb water better than open land. This was followed by post-war ploughing of grasslands for arable cultivation, which further reduced the capacity of the countryside to soak up rainfall. More recently, intensive farming practices, including loss of fallow periods and organic inputs from mixed-use farming, have further resulted in the breakdown of soil structure, reducing the capacity of soils to absorb and slowly release water.
So I am proposing a Natural Environment Strategy which would help us deal with a changing environment.
What might the strategy involve? In ruralareas, greening policies could be adapted to address flooding concerns; water runs rapidly off ploughed fields, especially on clay soils, causing flooding in towns sometimes many miles away. Measures could include support to restore soil structure through different farming practices, plus woodland planting and permeable grassland zones along stream margins, joining them up to absorb and slow down runoff within whole catchments.
These flood reduction measures would need to be fully integrated with biodiversity enhancement, the need to protect landscape character, local biomass fuel production and the continued needs of farmers to farm efficiently and produce our food. Piece by piece, year by year, the countryside would become better shaped to address human needs in cities as well as in rural areas.
In urban areas, solutions include green infrastructure, a network of green spaces bringing multiple benefits including water management, biodiversity enhancement, recreation and wellbeing for urban people, local food growing and perhaps renewable energy production. Through green infrastructure, people are reconnected with the natural world, and the food and energy they consume. Green infrastructure would need to be retrofitted to existing urban areas and also integrated with new developments.
Let’s be clear, the proposed Natural Environment Strategy is not a call for more government spending. Rather it should start by bringing together interests and expertise that have typically remained in different worlds – farmers and hydrologists, for example. It would also need to better join up existing initiatives in different government departments and agencies, and resolve conflicting perspectives.
Urban floods, farming, soils and food are all interrelated through the way we manage and are affected by the environment. The Natural Environment Strategy would join them up, use money more wisely and base human life on a better relationship with the natural world.