Demands for ever more aggressive dredging of river channels and for higher and higher concrete flood walls show just how poor our understanding is in Britain of how rivers actually function. After heavy rainfall the water has to go somewhere. A river channel can’t hold it all.
All over the world, except in Britain, it is understood that the hilly landscapes found in the upper part of any river catchment are intended by nature to act as ‘water towers’, absorbing and holding back water after heavy rainfall and releasing it slowly through the year.
If you strip the nature from these sensitive landscapes, as we have done across the British uplands during the last two centuries, they lose their ability to fulfil this function. So when it rains you get a torrent and a flood downstream, and in the summer the rivers run dry.
Reducing overgrazing and restoring nature to our upper catchments can make a huge contribution, but even that won’t always be enough. Sometimes the volume of rainfall is too great. That’s why we need also to reconnect our rivers to their floodplains.
How anyone ever considered it a good idea to build houses on our floodplains is a mystery to me. That has to stop completely. And where there are no houses we should pay farmers for agreeing to store water on their land following rainfall. Better on fields than in living rooms!
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