UK must adapt for weather extremes, says Environment Agency

Gnome in flood water Some river levels fluctuated between their highest and lowest levels within the space of four months

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Britain must become more resilient to both drought and flooding, Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith has said.

New figures from the agency show that one in every five days saw flooding in 2012, but one in four days saw drought.

Rivers such as the Tyne, Ouse and Tone fell to their lowest and rose to their highest flows since records began, within a four-month period of the year.

Lord Smith said urgent action was vital to help "prepare and adapt" many aspects of Britain for such extremes.

Meteorologists fear that extremes of weather may increase as global temperatures slowly rise.

Met Office analysis has suggested that the UK could experience a severe short-term drought, similar to the drought experienced in 1976, once a decade.

Transferring water

With the population of the water-stressed south-east of England projected to grow by almost a quarter by 2035, Lord Smith argued that the number of smaller reservoirs needed to be increased immediately and that new ways of transferring water from areas where it is plentiful to areas where it is scarce must be established.

Lord Smith, whose agency covers England and Wales, insisted the reservoirs would be needed not just by farmers, but also by commercial turf growers, golf clubs, sport stadiums and race courses.

There are currently about 1,700 small-scale storage reservoirs across England and Wales, supplying 30% of total irrigation needs.

He also said more homes would need to be protected from flooding.

Lord Smith said: "The extremes of weather that we saw last year highlight the urgent need to plan for a changing climate.

"In 2012 we saw environmental damage caused by rivers with significantly reduced flows, hosepipe bans affecting millions and farmers and businesses left unable to take water from rivers.

"But we also saw the wettest year on record in England, with around 8,000 homes flooded. Interestingly 2007, which saw some of the most severe flooding in recent memory, also started the year with hosepipe bans.

"More of this extreme weather will exacerbate many of the problems that we already deal with including flooding and water scarcity, so taking action today to prepare and adapt homes, businesses, agricultural practices and infrastructure is vital."

Chart showing the lows and highs of river levels
Boggy land

He pointed out that modelling suggests that a changing climate could reduce some river flows by up to 80% during the summer in the next 40 years.

Part of the UK’s flooding problem is due to previous policies.

For decades, farmers were paid to drain boggy land in order to improve it for grazing. This caused water to rush off the fields into rivers, whereas previously it would have been held in the bogs to smooth out the flow into rivers throughout the year.

In addition, many flood plains have been built on.

Follow Roger Harrabin on Twitter @rharrabin


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  • rate this

    Comment number 705.

    Having mentioned harsh weather giving UK problems that are easy to overcome if the willingness were there, it should be remembered that some events are truly EXTREME.

    In these true cases of EXTREME weather, humans can only do their best to mitigate damages to life and property. Weather is bigger than us - as is the universe, asteroids and meteors.

    If we are not already, we should get prepared.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    All we need is sensible long term strategic policy-making for issues such as water, energy, transport, farming, house building and usage, taking into account climate, demographics, etc. Long term means for 30, 50 years or more. Learn from sensible countries like Germany and Holland. This is for the good of our country and its people. All our politicians ever care about is the next election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    It's great to hear someone saying this at last. I did my PhD in this area and know what a huge undertaking this is going to be. Some people think they'll just be able to wear T-shirts more; they're in for a shock. It's not just our experience of the climate its the services the climate provides. Think food production..disease... financial turbulence etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Dont you get so depressed & frustrated at the lack of responsibility & responsiveness of the powers that be? This new 'announcemnt from the EA is hardly new!! For years- no decades-its been obvious & a matter of public concern that we are using too much water in the SE, etc etc & that global warming will bring extremes. As usual the Gov wil only do something when it becomes a crisis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    We don't have any extreme weather. We just think it so because we are not even prepared for moderate weather.


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