Recent reports have warned of the impossibility of protecting the British coastline from an encroaching sea. “We cannot win the war on water”, one scientist said.
The forecast is an extraordinary description of our island becoming smaller as its edges are eroded, and even internal rivers swelling to such an extent that flood plains are subsumed and millions of properties become uninhabitable as a result of the force of nature, and of water. For decades, flood defences have been erected ever higher to hold back the sea and the rivers, but decade after decade they prove useless for the task. We cannot win a war on water.
It is a sign of the arrogance of our human race that we believe such a war can be won through experimentation, self-belief and desire. We have shaped our country and our waterways to accommodate our wants and perceived needs: we have cut down trees that protected against flooding, we have widened and straightened rivers, we have destroyed riverbanks and their protective natural habitats, and we have poisoned our waters with pesticides, plastics and recreational drugs. It is not surprising that the Spirit of Water is protesting. She has had enough.
The problem lies not just in the UK but in every country in the world where dams have been built, streams have been built on, rivers diverted or forced underground, and coastlines altered for development or tourism, with a concomitant impact on the wildlife that ensure the waters are healthy and the lands protected.
How can it be that, at a time of declared national emergency concerning flooding and climate change, most farmers refuse to change their destructive industrial-scale methods of food production, resist vigorously the introduction of flood-preventing beavers, and insist on the need for pesticides? How can it be that builders still are allowed to build on flood plains, and without the recommended flood prevention measures? How can it be that the May government, today, ignores the latest warning report from the Environment Agency, preferring to “gather its own evidence” in the autumn? How can it be that governments world-wide show no leadership to insist upon a new approach – though of course it is not new, just forgotten?
I live in mid-Wales, with a big river and ancient mountains all around me. Many of the great stones I find beneath the earth have scrapes and scratches on them from glaciers, and some are rounded from millennia of being washed by water. This place once was covered in water, part of a great sea of which the river is the last reminder. I know that one day the water meadows I see every day lying between the curves of the winding Wye opposite my windows will once again be a sheet of water, reclaimed by the river, an inland sea. No-one will be able to stop this force of nature, as so many times man has tried.
It is time to work with the water and not against it: much can be done sympathetically and sensibly to protect homes and encourage natural ways to strengthen river banks and trap water where it needs to be. Nature will help itself and us if we allow it to.
We cannot win a war on water, a war which totally is of our creation. Water is our friend, and there is nothing to fear for our future.