Going with the flow - we must put nature at the heart of climate change coping strategies

The Environment Agency has published a major long-term strategy to tackle flooding and coastal change. This new plan sets out the potential devastating impacts of accelerating climate change and the urgent need to make our homes and communities more resilient.

Dave Rumble argues that nature should be at the heart of this strategy - ensuring natural flood management processes are prioritised, as well as investing in habitat creation to reduce carbon and slow climate change.

Rather than starting from the position of building higher and more expensive walls to stem the rising tide, we need a total rethink of our relationship with the land, our coasts, rivers and floodplains.  We should be looking at what we can do to work with natural solutions, rather than waging the unwinnable war on water.

This is not, however, what's happening currently.  Instead of investing in a robust and sustainable natural environment that could help both tackle climate change and better cope with its consequences, we are increasingly seeing swathes of our floodplains and coastal habitats being lost to development.  With the ever-rising pressure for more homes and short-term economic growth, we are losing sight of the long-term costs.   Councils are pushing forward with expensive and environmentally damaging developments, such as that proposed at Tipner (Portsmouth's new 'super peninsular'), which will see areas already partially below sea level, reclaimed and defended in order to accommodate homes which may be submerged within a few decades.

Surveying for seagrass on the Solent coast

Surveying for seagrass on the Solent coast © Lianne de Mello

This relentless development, together with ever higher and wider flood defences, often squeezes out the habitats and wildlife that should be our greatest assets in climate change resilience.

Coastal defences can lead to loss of important habitats such as salt marsh and mudflats.  The Solent has already lost up to 83% of its salt marsh in some areas and without bold realignment initiatives, it could disappear altogether.  Together with our shrinking seagrass meadows, these incredible local habitats offer vital carbon storage and natural coastal defences whilst at the same time supporting coastal birds and commercially important fish.

 

 

Farming on the Isle of Wight

© Lucy Temple

Development and an increasingly 'hard' environment also reduces the capacity for the landscape to absorb floodwater.  Addressing intensive agriculture and land management 'upstream' must also be part of the picture.  This means joining up the dots with progressive agricultural policy that incentivises landowners and farmers to create healthy, functioning and sustainable landscapes that can yield benefits for the wider community alongside food and other commodities.

A wilder landscape along our river valleys can slow the flow of water, through more natural vegetation such as flower-rich meadows, rough pasture, hedgerows and woodlands.  Creating more space for nature, reconnecting historic water meadows and 'wilding' areas of floodplain can all play a significant role in natural flood management.  

The habitat restoration undertaken by the Wildlife Trust at Winnall Moors nature reserve, undeniably prevented millions of pounds of damage to property during the severe flooding that took place during in 2013.  The straight, engineered channels that existed before had failed to perform this function during previous flood incidents, leaving Winchester with huge repair bills. 

Our vision for a wilder Hampshire and Isle of Wight needs everyone to play their part in nature's recovery.  This is not just for the sake of our fantastic wildlife and natural environment, but for everyone's sake.  Our future health, prosperity, quality of life, safety and survival ultimately depends upon this.

 

You can respond to the Environment Agency's consultation on their proposed strategy here.  You can also read more here about our plans for a wilder future for our counties.