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Floods, Floodplains and Wetlands.

March 3rd, 2020 in featured by Noreen Shears

River Trent. Photograph Clean Rivers Trust


This winter (2019/20) has been the worst period of wet weather since at least 2007. Flooding across the country has been for several communities catastrophic. The numbers of homes and businesses inundated have been worse than any this century. In relation to public concerns of global warming or climate chaos there are answers yet to be given but whatever the verdict the country is flooding more regularly over greater areas. Many of these areas are also noticeably more heavily populated. The homes of these people are being inundated, the fabric of these buildings are damaged, electrical plug failures, plaster on the walls, paint work, furniture all damaged, most irretrievably. Personal possessions, personal treasures, memories damaged or destroyed. Few people are ready for such events, floods happen to others not ——.

The damage the Trust witnessed during the floods of 20 years ago allowed the long-term effects, health issues to came to the fore: physical effects from lowered ability to withstand illness to mortality. Raised levels of heart attack not being uncommon. Phycological concerns became regular effects after the flood: more rain brought anxiety and several people became obsessed with monitoring the river levels. Sticking sticks into the bank as water rose higher was a regular obsession.

Such events though in the short term are unavoidable, flood defence schemes are in hand, greater expenditure by the government, both central and local authorities will allow more of the same, but these are not the full answer. The Environment Agency accept that new building cannot avoid being in flood plains. Few towns are set on the top of hills, rivers are nearly always at the heats of towns and cities. The rivers gave ease of transport, power for grinding corn or drove machines, supplied drinking water and took waste away.

Such acceptance gives rise to the chance for a change in architectural styles with living space in buildings being set on floors above the flood, foundations and the supports for such new habitations being able to cope with water flow and what might come down rivers on the flood flow.

The long-term answers though are primarily not in the expanding towns or villages but in the countryside. The lands adjacent to the rivers the last areas that are vestigial virgin washlands and floodplains. Those areas that can be used to hold back the floods at or closer to their source. The heaviest rainfall is often on higher ground and as it races down the river, scouring the rivers’ bed and banks dragging debris with it that can get stuck under bridges and turning them to dams. Often bridges are in towns and villages which then flood. The answers are open to debate and all possibilities are not suitable for every setting being the holding of water between the bridges, the use of dams, not those concrete obstructions that that stop fish migration or are ugly but leaky barriers that can allow a volume of water past but holding back the major flood volumes. The volumes held back lagooning out beyond the banks and onto the farmland bordering the flow.

Such schemes have already been trialled at Pickering in East Yorkshire, though not without controversy, statements such as did it rain enough on the moors above the town. The real issue is how to get the permissions above towns and villages, farmers love their land and they do not want to lose even a fraction of their holdings. Government though, post Brexit, is offering farm subsidies for water management and wetland creation and protection. This carrot needs to be tested in the next while and if the farming community and landowners agree such schemes may be developed going forward.

In consideration of the above it is worth becoming aware that the real loss to England is of its wetlands. If one looks at the maps that follow it becomes easier to comprehend that the main flood areas of the country were historically wetlands. The last map demonstrates that there is today a paucity of wetland. This being that across much of the country wetlands that once existed urbanisation has taken place. Once this is understood it is not a case of wringing one’s hands and bringing out the wrecking ball. The removal of urban areas is not even an option: the creation of new wetlands though is.


The rivers that flow across much of the country are for most of their lengths stuck between banks. They make their way to the sea along paths constructed for them. In rural areas the banks often look natural but, in most instances, these channels have been altered, deepened, straitened, narrowed or other contrivance. In urban areas the rivers often are held between concrete or stone banks. Buried underground, piped and culverted. No reason to wonder that most of the time humans they thought that nature, rivers included could be tamed. It is a shock when the river enters your home without knocking. It should not be, it is raining record numbers, and it must flow, it goes down drains, it overwhelms them it enters the rivers filling the rivers with raw sewage. It flows as water and rivers always have, downhill. When the slopes slacken the water spreads out often where houses now stand but once there used to be areas where flood water was welcomed or at least expected. Wetlands and marshes that accepted the waters and the soils, peat and breaking down vegetation that absorbed much of this water and held it over long periods of time.


Now these wetlands and washlands can be the answer to much that is the dilemma. Holding onto water as a resource as well as mitigating opportunity to hold back the flood. The development of wetland and washlands can also affect global warming itself. Allowing carbon to be sequestrated from the atmosphere.

Author: Noreen Shears

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