Now the River Thames has burst its banks to the west of London and the flooding in the UK is getting worse and worse. Thousands more residents are at risk all along the Thames valley. The world-famous river runs through the nation’s capital and flows past the iconic monuments of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Conditions are expected to continue to deteriorate with more heavy rain forecast in coming days. The entire transport system is under great strain. One man in Berkshire, Asif Khan, who stood and watched his fridge go “bang” as the waters poured into his home, said it was like “something out of a horror move.” They had not been able to use their toilet for days with the sewers blocked; the whole street was awash, and he was preparing to get out with his two small children.
Never before have so many flood warnings had to be issued and so many areas had more than double the annual amount of rainfall. The UK flooding is catastrophic. Fire crews say they have never come across such deep floodwaters or had to manage rescue operations on such a scale. The government are having to try to identify and priortise the areas most in need to urgent help. The distribution of sandbags and the temporary construction of flood defences is now under centralized government control. The military and volunteers are working round the clock in many parts of the country.
The railway lines are some of the worst affected parts of the infra-structure with closures and cancellations on many routes. Network Rail has concerns over 500 sites, where the norm for this time of year would be 12. They warn that problems will carry on for months due to extensive repairs.
Some cities have become no-go areas. Worcester’s city centre is flooded and inaccessible and will remain closed all week.
There is a “high risk” that the Severn, Wye and Thames rivers will all flood mid-week affecting homes, schools, businesses and shops. In calculating who to assist, the Treasury have a ruthless rule. The cost of any defence must outweigh the benefit. This tends to mean that farmers and farmland are always less likely to be defended. Urban areas with higher numbers of households fit the criteria better of every pound spent yielding eight in economic terms. Homes at risk are added up and the number of deprived homes is added to that total. Inevitably, built-up, heavily populated areas then score better. This has given rise to a great deal of heated debate as to where the money goes and who needs it most. How England looks after its countryside, and those who live and work there, is at the heart of this contentious issue. The misery of the UK flooding, as its gets worse day by day, week after week, is underscored by this angry political polemic.
The Head of the Environment Agency, who has come in for a lot of criticism for his handling of the crisis, and his apparent lack of sympathy for the victims; has not endeared himself today, by stating that home-owners in flooded areas “knew the risks.” This remark has further stoked the growing hostility towards Lord Smith and the calls for him to resign. The Environment Agency have total responsibility for all river management and flood defence systems. The Prime Minister, on a tour of worst-hit regions, has called for caution, saying this is no time for changes in leading personnel. David Cameron just wants everyone to “get on with their jobs.”
Smith has also bluntly said Britain must make a choice to save either “town or country.” Country-dwellers find his comments to be appallingly arrogant and out of touch. Many have felt abandoned by his agency and the too-little, too-late measures taken to protect them. The peer blames the Treasury for not giving him enough funds to work with, and refuses to step down.
The underlying irony in all this is that the Environment Agency have for 18 years taken a policy of protecting wildlife first and foremost. At a time like this, it becomes glaringly apparent that human life has to take precedence over wildlife. Sadly, also, despite all those efforts, much non-aquatic wildlife will have perished this winter. The nature reserves, maintained by non-dredging of rivers, cannot support animals who live in the ground, if they are totally submerged.
Otters and seal pups are among creatures caught up in coastal surges who have not been able to survive.
Back in January, over fifty specialised wildlife sites were hit and the impact was said to be “devastating.” Some of these Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSIs) are of international importance. Rare freshwater habitats lying close to shorelines are especially vulnerable to becoming salinated and destroyed. Birds have also drowned who have been unable to fly for safety in the gale force winds. The longer-term effect of all this destruction will take months to unravel, as the “base of the pyramid” – all the frogs and insects that wading birds eat – either manages to recover, or does not. Wildlife reserves are key tourist attractions, but whether repairs will be justified is another long-term question mark. There is so much costly repair work to be done nationwide.
UK flooding has been extreme in recent years. Floods in June of 2007 affected a staggering near 24,000 homes in Yorkshire. Whether those sorts of numbers are attained in this wettest winter on record will be seen in the coming days as the Thames continues to rise.
With the home counties at risk, the army mobilized across the south and the storms set to continue this week, the situation is bleak. Amidst all the blaming and finger-pointing, the government have said they “can’t prevent the course of nature” and all the saturated country can do is brace itself for another severe pounding. The UK flooding has been terrible, but it looks like it is going to get even worse.
By Kate Henderson