Britain is becoming a wet desert

‘Two-fifths of our rivers are man-made canals: dug down, dredged, and separated from their flood plains’

Bright Green
Flooding from the River Trent, Nottinghamshire (©Alamy Stock Photo)

Floods, overflowing sewage tunnels and mudslides might suggest too much water. But actually, they indicate too little soil. There is indeed a large amount of water, but the problem is that it has nowhere to go. Bereft of organic matter, our compacted, dying soils have lost absorption capacity. “Effective rainfall,” soaked into soils and groundwater, is falling. Hence our inability to come through summer droughts. Britain is becoming a wet desert.

Two-fifths of Britain’s rivers are man-made canals: dug down, dredged, and separated from their flood plains. Bereft of river meanders and wetlands, they overspill when waters rush down deforested hills. Like a toxic chocolate spread, brown, muddy floods spread onto land, towns and villages, and into coastal seas.

Hence those swirling, thick torrents of upland peat: nitrogen-, phosphate-, and pesticide-polluted soils; industrial effluents; litter and debris; road salts; dog and animal waste; and human faeces from overflowing septic tanks and sewers—whatever the roaring, tearing waters can pull along.

Flights and trains are cancelled; roads and bridges closed; shops, schools and homes drenched in liquid manure. People and livestock die, and local businesses face ruin.

Have you heard of Slow the Flow Calderdale? Ban the Burn? Moors for the Future? Treesponsibility? Trees for Life? Some 16 million people live within an hour’s drive from the uplands. Their anger is growing as they see our bleeding, denuded hills.

Storm Dennis caused 600 flood warnings, a record. But heat is rising. Wilder, wetter, warmer weather follows. Cyclones travel north. Hot, watery air, with wildly careening sky rivers, dump lumpy torrents over Britain. A “month of rain,” TV presenters tell us, fell in 24 hours. Only, that measure—that month—is growing meaningless.

That Britain is flooded does not mean we have enough water. We squander the western uplands’ 2-4 metres of rain. Further east we have little rainfall. London is drier than Rome, Essex sometimes drier than Jerusalem. England has 180 chalk rivers (85 per cent of the world’s total). Think of them as a being, a lifeform. As the environmentalist Tony Juniper has noted: they are rarer than giant pandas. Old people remember swimming in the Beane in Hertfordshire. These days it is mostly a dry ditch—partly run through a 14-mile sewage tunnel. Cherry Hinton Brook in Cambridgeshire; the Kennet, flowing through Berkshire and Wiltshire; and Hampshire’s Avon are in dire straits. Not long ago, anglers’ clubs routinely cleared Hampshire’s Itchen of water plants and bank woods, and released fat, sluggish farm trout for “better sport.” The wild fish lost habitat, shade and food, and the ecosystem—the whole river—was radically altered and diminished. 

Ministers like grey infrastructure. Cement barriers, water pumps, generator sheds, drainpipes and concrete culverts allow cabinet members to be photographed as action heroes, in helmets and hi-vis vests. They ride helicopters, and snapshot themselves with soldiers. Men to the rescue! By contrast, holding a beaver looks girly.

But green infrastructure is far cheaper than grey. South West Water calculates that £10 million to restore hills and moors saves £650 million over 30 years.

To heal uplands and flood plains we can use our many mini-Mordors—blackgrass-infected fields, thistly rye-grass pastures, bare hillsides, wilted and diseased conifer plantations, and erosion gullies and unregulated moor tracks. Let’s heal our dying peat bogs, once on Dartmoor a calibration target for Royal Navy battleships’ heavy guns; burnt (like Amazon jungles are) on grouse moors; and trampled and gnawed into hags in deer forests.

In the past, extinct Atlantic rainforests and montane shrub cooled airs and soils. So do peat bogs, wildwoods, river woods, wood pastures, shrubby commons, fens, reed beds, swamps, grazing marshes, flood meadows and regenerative farms. By acting as sponges, they slow and hold rain waters. Because forests hold up to 60 times more water than compacted, open ground, reverting 5 per cent of the uplands to wildwoods would reduce flood peaks by 30 per cent.

Beavers help too, building small dams. They have been reintroduced by 24 European countries. But in England, beavers are kept in steel cages and fenced enclosures. The government argues that ever-more studies of this much-studied mammal are needed. Green coastal infrastructure such as sand dunes, kelp forests, seagrass beds and salt marshes would help protect us from pounding waves and rising seas since they dampen wave energy: marshlands also absorb waters, and thus to some little extent at least, hold back seas.

It is not clear we have the state capacity to manage floods. The upland regulator, Natural England, has had its budget cut by nearly two-thirds since 2010. Britain never complied with the EU’s 2000 and 2018 Water Framework Directives. Only 41 per cent of Britain’s natural surface waters have a good or high ecological status. Half of our groundwater is nitrate-polluted. Every year, we release 39 million tonnes of raw sewage into the Thames alone. Only the European Court of Justice forced us to build the Thames Tideway Tunnel (London’s super-sewer). It is thanks to the ECJ that almost all British beaches are now safe for swimming.

Now, we will lose the ECJ. The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement barely mentions the environment. The Political Declaration did: but merely with fine words, which are not legally binding. Our new green watchdog—the Office for Environmental Protection—will answer to the Cabinet, and not to Parliament or courts. Its chairman will be a Cabinet appointee. It will have no real power. The “25 Year Environmental Plan” published in 2019 does not bind the UK in law to high (or indeed any) environmental standards. The sleepy target year is 2037. In reality, there are no targets. After all, there are no consequences for failing to meet them. The dismantling of environmental protections coincides with our arrival in a lawless and flooded future. Sunlit uplands? You will need waders to get there.