The power of nature

Alan Clawley reflects on a topical issue.

Whether you believe that recent severe weather events are a punishment from God or caused by rising carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere one thing is certain – even advanced societies with all their technical expertise and wealth weren’t ready for them.

But people who have lived for generations in parts of the world where earthquakes, storms and threats of floods are normal have devised their own defence mechanisms. The Japanese know about earthquakes and traditionally built their houses in timber to withstand shock. In the big modern cities the state imposes a strict building code. All the more surprising, then, when their nuclear power station was overwhelmed by a Tsunami the height of which took the authorities completely by surprise.

Most of Holland is below sea level, but the Dutch government would neglect the maintenance of its sea defences at enormous peril. So the Netherlands and the Low Countries are not known to suffer from flooding.

Houses in traditional Cornish fishing villages huddle together on narrow streets to shelter from western gales and are built well above high tide.

Now we see pictures of tonnes of floodwater being removed from the Somerset levels by a battery of emergency pumps installed by the Environment Agency. This area is largely below sea level and without dykes, dredging, ditching and constant pumping it would revert to its natural state. And when it does flood the people turn to the authorities. They believed that science and technology had conquered nature. Now the illusion has been shattered.

Nowhere in the advanced world was this breakdown in confidence revealed more starkly than in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In his book Zeitoun, Dave Egger tells the gripping story from the point of view of one man and his family. The main character decides to ride out the storm and deal with its aftermath while his wife and children flee north to stay with friends and relatives. By chance, or perhaps premonition, he had previously bought a second-hand canoe in which he now paddled round the flooded city rescuing victims and feeding abandoned dogs. Government, however, was paralysed. Law and order took precedence over humanitarian aid. Yet, New Orleans was built on the low-lying Mississippi delta and had always been prone to flooding. Levees had been raised along the banks of the river but this time the river burst through them.

The authorities, even in advanced societies like ours, now appear to be incapable of preparing for or responding to severe weather events. One farmer has given up on the authorities and is devising her own flood prevention plan. The flow of water off the land is slowed down by creating terraces. The Chinese have used this technique for thousands of years because rice needs fields to be flooded without the precious soil being washed away in the process.

With our belief that government agencies and their experts know all the answers we have lost the knowledge of how traditional societies managed the forces of nature in their local communities. And now that government is cutting public spending on these agencies we are bound to feel increasingly disappointed about what they can achieve. Whilst weather events look like becoming more extreme the state machinery for dealing with them is being impoverished. Rivers are not dredged, dykes are neglected, street gullies aren’t regularly cleaned out. Storm water still goes down the sewers in urban areas, front gardens are paving over. Planners allow houses to be built on flood plains.

About a decade ago the government started a programme aimed at mitigating the expected effects of climate change. Now there are many in government who deny that any such effect exists. The effect of that denial is to put a huge burden on the shoulders of former Labour environment minister, Chris Smith, who heads the Environment Agency, a government quango that is now being blamed by flood victims for not doing enough to deal with their plight.