Living with climate change

by Simon Collings

In July 2007 our home in Oxford flooded. A few days earlier, hours of torrential rain had fallen in the Cotswolds, intense as a tropical storm. It had been a wet summer, but we had not seen rain like this before. The sky cleared, the sun came out and we waited with our neighbours as river levels steadily rose, a surge of water moving inexorably down the tributaries of the Thames towards us. We moved furniture and books upstairs, put the fridge and washing machine on bricks, tried to make sense of the conflicting rumours. On the morning we flooded it seemed as though the danger was passing. We were told the flood had peaked. But mid-morning the stream behind our house finally brokie its banks and water started flowing across the back gardens. We’d sealed the doors with putty. What we hadn’t foreseen was water rising up through the gaps between the floorboards. There was nothing we could do to stop it. For 24 hours several inches of crystal clear water covered the ground floor of the house, light flashing from its rippling surface as we waded through it.

We move into the house in 1999 with hardly a thought of flood risk. There had been a serious flood in 1947, which affected large swathes of the city. During the final decades of the twentieth century Osney had been completely dry. But since we moved in, there have been several near misses and two major events, in July 2007 and Jan/Feb 2014. In the second of these incidents we didn’t flood. A small submersible pump provided by the City Council kept the water under the house just below floor level. This, combined with flood-defence measures implemented following the summer of 2007, kept us and our neighbours dry. Nonetheless it was a stressful start to the year.

The Oxford-based poet Jamie McKendrick, who was flooded in 2007, wrote several poems which capture the experience. Here’s the start of ‘Après’ (from Out There, Faber, 2012):

When the flood waters left they left
the pine boards cupped; the plaster blistered
with salts; the cheap chipboard
bursting out of its laminate jacket
in all the kitchen units; the electrics wrecked…

After the 2007 flood I met people from other parts of Oxford whose houses had flooded, and discovered that some of them had flooded before and had been waging lone campaigns to get the authorities to do something. We decided to form an alliance. I volunteered to be a member of a steering group which set about developing an overall analysis of the causes of flooding across the city. From this analysis we prioritised issues and lobbied for practical solutions.

The Oxford Flood Alliance, as we became, held its eighth Annual Public Meeting a few weeks ago. A lot has changed since the early days of the campaign. At the beginning the various agencies with responsibilities for aspects of flooding were uncoordinated. The Environment Agency dealt with river water, Thames Water with sewers. ‘Surface water’ was the responsibility of the local authorities. But water in a flood ignores administrative definitions. Surface water from roads enters rivers, high river levels push up groundwater levels. Sewers become infiltrated by groundwater and manhole covers start leaking contaminated water into the street from where it tries to flow back to the river. A reduction in flood risk requires a coordinated approach.

The Environment Agency had been working on a big scheme to solve Oxford’s flooding problems for several years. It aimed to protect the city against flooding even at the scale expected only once in 100 years. This was an expensive project and the business case didn’t stack up. The costs exceeded the likely financial benefit. There was no plan B. We proposed a series of more limited measures designed to protect residents against the scale of events we were starting to see every few years. These became known as ‘short-term measures’ of which two rounds were funded. Work included enlarging or installing culverts at key pinch points, installing permanent pumps in streets especially vulnerable to flooding, and procuring demountable barriers to hold back flood water far more effectively than sandbags. Many of the schemes involved various agencies working together and pooling resources.

In late 2013 discussions about a further round of short-term measures prompted the Environment Agency to revisit the ‘big scheme’. The increasing frequency of flood events and the economic disruption was helping to make the business case. The serious flooding in January and February 2014, with major roads into the city submerged and the railway closed, helped focus political attention on the problems. The Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary both visited the flooded areas and we met with them, explaining the problems in affected areas and pressing for support for an adequate solution. From that point the case for what is now called the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme gained momentum.

The major stakeholders in Oxford today work together. At our public meeting Network Rail, the Environment Agency and Thames Water all gave presentations and described how they are working with each other on strategic solutions. The City and County Councils, represented in the audience, are also working together, and coordinating with the other agencies. All of the main players are now behind a scheme for delivering a long-term solution for Oxford.

There are dissenters. Some deep Greens believe the problem can be solved simply by planting more trees in the Cotswolds – a solution advocated by Guardian journalist George Monbiot. The Flood Alliance organised a symposium jointly with the Environmental Change Institute of Oxford University, at which a number of scientists presented on the current evidence of impacts of natural flood management techniques. While some of these methods can be effective in small, ‘flashy’ catchments, the impact in a catchment on the scale of the upper Thames would be negligible.

This doesn’t mean land usage patterns in the Cotswolds don’t need to change. Evidence of links between climate change and increasingly frequent flooding is becoming stronger. The modelling for the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme has to factor in assumptions about climate change which over time will erode the effectiveness of the scheme. Changes to farming methods, and appropriate use of natural techniques to slow flow in tributaries in the upper Thames may well have a part to play.

The Oxford scheme will not be a concrete channel, it will be a natural stream but with a berm outside its banks to provide a channel for flood water. In normal times the berm will be grass meadow, grazed by horses and cattle, a haven for wildlife and a recreational amenity for local residents.

The Greens also argue that what really needs to be tackled are the causes of ‘climate change.’ With COP21 about to start in Paris some Oxford residents are watching with especial interest to see whether the parties manage to produce a credible plan of action. There are positive signs, but even if serious progress is made in the coming years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will continue to rise. For us in Oxford that means an increased risk of flooding. The causes of climate change do need to be tackled, but the effects of climate change also need to be mitigated.

We’re fortunate in Oxford that resources probably will be found to reduce the risk of flooding. We live in a society where ordinary citizens can influence public bodies, and where government agencies and private companies are responsive. It’s no fun living on the front line of climate change. Millions of people now live with the increased risks which result from global warming. Spare a thought for them as world leaders haggle over emissions reductions targets in Paris in the coming days.