FLOODS FROM THE FUTURE: WILL A SECOND THAMES BARRIER SAVE LONDON?

The capital city has become virtually uninhabitable. It resembles Venice, but without the gondolas. Parliament Square has been transformed into paddy fields which reach right up to the walls of the Palaceof Westminster. BuckinghamPalaceis surrounded by “ a sea of shanty housing”, the Gherkin is providing accommodation for “thousands of eco-refugees” and there is ice-skating along the Thames. Hollywood-style science fiction? An extremely unlikely doomsday scenario? Not according to an exhibition currently running at the Museumof London(until 6th March 2011) featuring an “arresting display” in the form of 14 postcards which aim to “bring home the full impact of global warming, food scarcity, rising sea levels” and how all the inhabitants  “will need to innovate and adapt to survive”. The photo images, designed by illustrators Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones, show a London that has been “overwhelmed by the impact of 6-metres flooding” – in effect, the level required to breach the existing Thames Barrier. There is no specified date – but the message is clear enough: Ignore it at your peril; It could happen far sooner than you would like to believe.

As the “Independent” newspaper reported at the time, the former Labour Government had already begun to consider proposals for a new £20 billion flood defence system, possibly entailing the construction of a second barrier at Sheerness in Kent– east of the current one located at Woolwich. In the opinion of the then Environment Minister, Phil Woolas (recently ousted by the courts as MP for Oldham East) a decision needed to be made soon, as the likelihood of Londonflooding had doubled over the preceding 25 years. In an interview with the “Sunday Telegraph”, he pointed out that the Thames Barrier (the world’s second largest after the Oostersscheldkering in the Netherlandsand officially inaugurated by the Queen on 8th May 1984) had been built on the assumption there was a “one-in-2000-year chance that the capital would flood”. This figure would instead be halved to just 1,000 years by 2030. Statistics published on the UK Environment Agency’s (EA) website indicate that the country’s sea levels are now about 10cm higher than in 1900 and that in the South-East of England, a combination of the continuous upsurge globally and the local sinking of the land is resulting in “ sea level rises of 5.4 mm a year”. They attribute this development to (among other factors) “long-term variations in ocean volume” caused by the melting of ice-sheets and glaciers, which in turn heighten the prospect of  torrential storms  breaking through sea defences and threatening the estimated 17 million people in the UK who live within 10 kilometres of the sea, as well as much of the manufacturing industry based at or near the coast.

According to author Peter Acroyd in his book on theThames, in 4000 BC the land beside the river was 46 feet (14 m) higher than it is now. He has likewise calculated that the South-East ofEngland“is sinking slowly into the water” – at the rate of approximately 12 inches (305 mm ) per century – and that the tides moving up the lower reaches of theThamesare increasing  at a rate of 2 feet (0.6m) per century. “That is why the Thames Barrier will not provide protection enough”. The magazine ‘Water Power’ has also expressed concern that, despite all the measures which have been implemented to safeguard London’s low-lying areas upstream (among them the 11km long Jubilee River, created and designed to act as “a flood relief channel for the Thames around Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton”), many properties are still at risk. More than 15,000 homes and businesses, they state, now stand “within the 1 in 100 floodplain (equating to a 1% annual chance of occurrence) between Datchet in Berkshire and Teddington in Middlesex and add the prescient reminder that “The Lower Thames has already experienced two significant floods this century: in 2000 and 2003 and narrowly avoided flooding again in 2007”. In practice, it is not a question of whether it will happen again, but when and on what scale.

Any cosy or lingering illusions that London is somehow immune from what is happening elsewhere around the world – that the Graves/Madoc-Jones exhibition can be dismissed as mere publicity-seeking scare-mongering and there is no risk of the UK capital being engulfed by tidal waves – will have been abruptly dispelled by the scenes from Queensland this January. Channel Four TV News transmitted pictures of skyscrapers in Brisbane – Australia’s third largest city – surrounded by cascading water which had swept away whatever lay in its path: cars, lorries, boats, traffic lights, riverside cafeterias. An area the size of France, Germany and Luxembourg combined was affected. Thousands of people had to abandon their homes. These, however, were not third world refugees fleeing from yet another natural disaster but citizens of a modern, developed industrial nation. Almost simultaneously, there were inundations and landslides in south-east Brazil and Sri Lanka. The floods which were a constant occurrence last year – Madeira (February); South-Eastern France (June); North-East Brazil (June); Southern and Central China (July); Pakistan (August); Niger (August) – look set to continue well into 2011 and beyond. A UNFCCC (United Nations Convention On Climate Change) survey published prior to the Climate Conference in Cancun, Mexico (December 2010) highlighted “the numerous long-term changes in the climate” which had been observed – including extreme weather such as droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of tropical cyclones. It cited, as examples of the increasingly powerful storms occurring worldwide, the floods in the Rhine (1996/7); China (1998); Eastern Europe (1998/2002); Mozambique (2000); Bangladesh (2004). The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change) Report (2007) declared that “the warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and expressed the fear that (due mainly to the contraction of the Greenland ice sheet) a  “sea-level rise of just 200mm could create 740,000 homeless people in Nigeria, the Maldives (which could be made uninhabitable by 2100),Tuvalu and other low-lying countries”, They furthermore noted that “extra-tropical storm tracks are projected to move poleward, with consequent alterations in wind, precipitation and temperature patterns”.

These assessments apply to the UK just as much as anywhere else. It has become evident over the past few years that the weather in and around the British Isles has been changing. Winters in particular have become more severe and unpredictable – the countrywide chaos caused by the heavy snowfalls prior to Christmas 2010 being one such instance. There has also been a succession of very wet summers. June 2007 was described at the time as “one of the wettest on record in Britain”, with the rainfall of 5.5 in. being double the normal average. This led to serious flooding in Northern Ireland, East Yorkshire, The Midlands, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and South Wales. The Environment Agency characterised the situation in July of that year as “critical” and Phil Woolas afterwards declared that the  Government would have faced “the biggest peacetime evacuation in history” if the emergency defences around the Welham electricity sub-station in Gloucestershire had failed. In 2008, Sir Michael Pitt , in his Review on “Learning The Lessons From the 2007 Floods”, advocated (among many other proposals) the establishment of  a Cabinet Committee dedicated to tackling the threat from flooding, thereby bringing it in line with other major hazards such as pandemic flu and terrorism and that  local authorities should play a major role in the management of flood risk. There were heavy downfalls yet again that year, especially during what the Meteorological Office named as “Awful August”, when rain “soaked heavy swathes of already water-logged Britain”, continuing into September across Wales and Central & Southwest England.

Dr Hayley Fowler (Newcastle University) forecast that the storms would increase in intensity over the following 70 years , with Northern Ireland and the Western regions being the worst hit. Consistent with this prediction, November 2009 was classified as “the wettest month in the UK since records began in 1914”. The most adversely affected areas on this occasion were Cumbria, Dorset, parts of Wales (Colwyn Valley, Pembrokeshire, Camarthenshire) plus much of the Irish Republic (Clare, Cork, Galway, Westmeath).

Sir Michael Pitt,in his 2008 Report , had called for  both “proper resourcing of flood resilience measures, with above-inflation increases every spending review” and “pre-planned, rather than ad hoc, financial arrangements in place for responding to the financial burden of exceptional emergencies”.  The probability of these recommendations being implemented, however ,has diminished somewhat since the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition Government – which is committed to sweeping public expenditure cuts – took office in May 2010. This has alarmed organizations such as the Association of British Insurers (ABI). Their view is that “A long-term flood prevention strategy, backed by the right level of investment is crucial if homes, services and businesses are to be properly protected”. In return, the ABI has pledged to make flood insurance as widely available as possible until 2013. AA Insurance has similarly warned (as quoted on the ‘FairInvestment’ website) that a reduction of public spending on flood defences – such as ensuring storm drains are kept clear and are improved to remove surface water – could make many households uninsurable The AAI Director, Simon Douglas , in a letter to the new Environment Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, drew her attention to the fact that if investment in flood defences was not maintained, insurers would become increasingly fussy about who they covered and this would correspondingly push up the cost of premiums. Lord Smith, the Environment Agency Chairman, told the “Observer” newspaper in November 2010 that flood defence spending would be “cut in cash terms by about 27% and that this will happen immediately”. He conceded that “With less money we have to face greater environmental challenges…We have to deal with what we get and make the best of it.” This provoked an angry riposte in the same publication from Mary Dhonau, Chief Executive of the National Flood Forum (a charity representing over 200 flood prevention groups around the country), who asserted that: “Because of government cuts, there could be more people dying from floods.”  Caroline Spelman since then has fended off criticism from the Opposition with the claim that her department’s projected reductions are far less than those planned by the Labour Party while it was still in power.

Despite this furore, the speculation regarding a prospective new crossing over (or a tunnel under) the River Thames has continued unabated.. The £500 million scheme for a Thames Gateway Bridge linking Beckton in the London Borough of Newham with Thamesmead in the London Borough of Greenwich was cancelled in 2008 by Mayor Boris Johnson. Although a scaled-down version was briefly considered in 2009, the next significant development emerged in July 2010 when (as revealed in the ‘Independent’), Transport For London (TfL) unveiled plans for a £25 million one- kilometre-long/ 50-metre high cable car system spanning the Thames between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, with the aim of it being ready in time for the 2012 Olympics. A planning application was submitted to the London Borough of Newham in October 2010. If permission is granted, construction will begin as soon as the source of the (totally private) funds has been identified and committed.  It is envisaged that the cable car will traverse every 30 seconds, convey 2,500 passengers (who will be able to use their Oyster cards) per hour in either direction, be equipped to accommodate bicycles and significantly reduce travel time between the 02 Arena and the Excel exhibition centre (both of which are Olympic locations). Boris Johnson has eulogized the cable car project as offering “a serene and joyful journey across the river”, whereas London Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, has portrayed it in more restrained terms as potentially providing “a relatively quick and cost-effective way of improving connections across the river for pedestrians and cyclists”.

This does not mean, however, that the concept of a new bridge over the Thames has been abandoned. On the contrary, as disclosed by BBC News in October 2010, Kent County Council (KCC) intend to go ahead with it, preferably sited to the east of Gravesend, linking up with Chadwell in Essex and carrying traffic direct to the M11 rather than the M25. Research conducted by the KCC’s consultants have indicated that the new £1bn bridge (which would be built by a private company) could generate 6,000 jobs in north Kent and south Essex. Drivers would pay to use it, but “half the costs would come from tolls at the Dartford Crossing”, which (as stipulated in the Coalition’s Spending Review last October) will rise for cars from £1.50 to £2 this year and then to £2.50 in 2012.  KCC hope to have a clear idea soon as to exactly when the work will start. Meanwhile, two Thames tunnel projects have so far made rather less headway. The multi-billion plan announced in 2008 by the engineering consortium Metrotidal Ltd to connect the Medway and Canvey Island by cutting through the North Kent mudflats and marshes has encountered stiff resistance from the RSPB (The Royal Society For the Protection Of Birds), who have lambasted the scheme for appearing to “ride roughshod over one of the most charismatic landscapes and important wildlife sites in the Thames Gateway”. A rather different sort of tunnel – a new “super sewer’ planned by Thames Water to “significantly reduce” the amount of sewage overflowing into the river – has been stirring up controversy at the London Assembly. The LA’s Health and Public Services Committee is unhappy that “no-one knows how long Thames Water customers are likely to face an estimated £65 charge on their bill to cover the cost of the scheme”. There is another factor which is causing their Chairman, James Cleverley, even more consternation: Every year, he has noted,  “39 million tonnes of untreated sewage is discharged into the River Thames from London’s sewers – enough to fill the Albert Hall 450 times.”  He believes that the Thames Water tunnel offers the best answer to a worsening problem.  Londoners will no doubt hope that he and his colleagues get this one right.

Filed under: Society | Posted on January 22nd, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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