It often takes a disaster or a near miss before we change the way we do things as a society. The Whaley Bridge dam incident saw the concrete spillway to a reservoir above the town damaged by heavy rain and put the dam at risk of collapse which could have seen the town catastrophically flooded.
This was one more warning that we need to change the that way we think about how we manage water - our most essential but potentially destructive resource.
The British seem to have always been talking about the rain. Feste, the clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, sings “the rain it raineth every day”. When this particular dam was built in 1841 it was a time when we were obsessed with controlling water, putting it behind walls and in pipes. Since then we have seen a continual loss of trees which soak up water, and the concreting of our habitats which makes water flow more quickly and causes floods.
We know now that controlling water isn’t about more concrete, more walls and more pipes. It is too big a force. The best way we can handle our water is by helping nature do what it does best and only using engineering as a last resort.
Planting more trees and reintroducing forests means that rainwater flows far more slowly to our town as cities. It also has the added benefit of rebuilding our natural habitats for our native species.
Natural flood defences can also regulate a river’s flow by recreating the work of Beavers that we lost due to them being hunted to extinction and gained where they are now being reintroduced.
The fact that developers are proposing concreting more of Whaley Bridge for housing implies we may not have learned our lessons yet.
Old man-made structures on our rivers and waterways need reevaluating, especially given the recent warning by the Committee on Climate Change that has highlighted how roads, bridges and dams are vulnerable, a situation that will be exacerbated by how interdependent these structures are.
Then there is climate change. The rain we are used to in Britain is generally relative soft and gentle, moderate. But our weather is becoming more extreme and our Victorian engineering may not always be able to cope. Bigger dams are not the answer.
Around the world, rain is an increasingly frequent subject of conversation, although for many as a report published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) illustrated, it is lack that is the problem: the supply of water, and sometimes its oversupply, is becoming the prism through which it is possible to see the many dangerous faces of the climate emergency.
Too much and too little water are two sides of the same coin and the one issue can’t be dealt with unless we address the other. There is only so much water to go around and too much for one place can mean too little in another.
This WRI report shows how a quarter of the world’s population are living in regions of extremely high water stress. Qatar, Israel and Lebanon were ranked as the most water-stressed countries in the world. A scarcity that will lead to droughts, described by the World Bank as “misery in slow motion” with the impact of droughts felt for generations.
This is a wake-up call that can no longer go unheard. Water should be treated like the valuable and exhaustible resource that it is, and maximum possible preparations made to provide insurance against its excess.
We need to think carefully about what investment in infrastructure that is needed and ensure our country has the skills and desire to think in new innovative ways.
The way we build homes needs to change to ensure water routes are taken into account. The building of vast concrete structures such as motorways and airports needs to be urgently curtailed due to the destruction they cause, and the fact they promote carbon-intensive activity feeding into climate change.
Our mountains and hills need reforestation on a major scale and finally we need to ensure we think of this in terms of changes to our economic system, which currently prioritises destruction over sustainability and quality of life.
Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party.
Image: Dam News, Twitter.