When I started writing my book, The Great Flood, I wanted to understand the psychological and emotional effects of being flooded, as well as its physical consequences.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how upsetting it must be to have to watch, helplessly, as polluted water pours through your doors or windows, or seeps upwards through your floors, destroying your possessions and turning your home into a sodden, stinking cave.
Yet flooding seemed to induce a degree of anguish that couldn’t be reduced to a rational tallying of its effects: as one civil servant said to me, flooding was ‘disproportionately upsetting’.
Malign and unfamiliar
We are drawn to water for many different reasons – spiritual and emotional as well as practical. We cherish the sea view and the sound of running water.
Philip Larkin wrote, in a poem called ‘Water’, which attempts to define a liturgy for the spiritually uncommitted: "If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water".
Baths and fountains are an enduring emblem of civic good. Yet flooding turns a substance that we depend upon and revere into something malign and unfamiliar. Floodwater isn’t soothing or beguiling, like rivers or streams, or awe-inspiring, like the sea. It is dirty, cold and destructive, and when it erupts from the channels in which we seek to contain it and invades people’s homes, it leaves stains that cannot easily be erased.
It isn’t a new phenomenon: we have always told stories of great floods that sweep the earth and drown its people, and stories of lost lands beneath the seas.
I wondered if that was why it was so upsetting. To those affected, being flooded feels like the end of the world. Yet the Noah myth is a comic story, in the sense that it offers the promise of rebirth and regeneration.
Even people with no religious convictions may find it hard to resist the irrational belief that they will be the ones to be saved. There may be room for only one family on the ark – one pair of breeding adults to accompany the animals – but we like to think that it will be us.
I wondered whether the sense of exceptionalism embedded in the old stories explained our attitude to global warming: they confirmed that the planet had always flooded, but they also told us that we would come through okay.
Such optimism seems increasingly delusional. When I started travelling around the UK, it had endured a series of devastating floods at the Biblical interval of every seven years: there were floods in 2000 and floods in 2007, and while I was visiting places that had flooded, and meeting the people who had been affected, the record-breaking floods of the winter of 2013 – 14 began.
The seven-year cycle may not resume during the next eighteen months, but the underlying trend is clear. Already, the mild, wet summers that I remember from childhood holidays in Scotland and the Lakes have disappeared.
The author Brian Stone wrote in the London Review of Books in 2018: "For anyone under the age of 30 – more than half the world’s population – the experience of a stable climate is entirely unknown. That is to say, not a single month in their lifetime has fallen within the limited range of temperature, precipitation or storm activity that governed the planet for the previous 10,000 years."
According to Met Office figures, nine of the ten warmest years on record in the UK have occurred since 2002 – and, since a warmer climate holds more water, they have also brought more floods.
Between 2005 and 2014, UN statisticians counted an average of 335 weather-related disasters per year around the world - a 14 percent increase on the period from 1995 to 2004, and nearly twice the number recorded between 1985 and 1994.
The greatest rise was in the numbers of storms and floods. Flooding alone accounted for 47 percent of all weather-related disasters. By the end of the century, damage from floods could increase worldwide by a factor of 20.
The seas are rising too: once, in Bristol, I saw marks chalked on the pavement showing how much of the city will be lost if sea-levels rises by a metre, as we have been told it will by the end of the century.
In 2014, the Environment Agency estimated that more than 7,000 homes will be lost by 2100, and a recent report by the Committee on Climate Change put the potential loss even higher: by the 2080s, it said 100,000 properties, 1,600 kilometres of road, 650 kilometres of railway and 92 stations will be at risk. So will ports, power stations and gas terminals.
Toxic waste from 1,000 landfill dumps may fall into the sea.
I was lucky: I had never been flooded, though I have lived in flood-prone places, like the Northumberland town of Morpeth, which flooded in 2008, and again, four years later, in 2012.
Other places that I knew and loved had flooded repeatedly, as well, like the Lake District towns of Keswick and Cockermouth. I wondered what it was like to live in places that had become vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather in ways they never had before.
I assumed that being flooded would remind people of the fragile nature of our domestic arrangements, and the way they can be overthrown. Yet many of the people that I met saw the causes of the floods that had overwhelmed their homes as local and provisional: they blamed bureaucrats, rather than the workings of nature aggravated by the pressures that seven billion people exert upon the planet.
Dismayingly, I met climate science deniers, insistent that there was more to worry about than a little carbon in the atmosphere, and others who were preoccupied by identifying precisely where the water that engulfed their home came from, and how it was released.
Perhaps that is how the human imagination always works: since we cannot encompass the idea of ecological catastrophe, we look for more immediate causes. I wanted to reflect those concerns and show how the floods affected their day to day lives.
But I also wanted to dramatise the broader context in which the floods occurred, both in terms of the mythic underpinnings that shape our emotional response, and in terms of the worsening weather that ensures that being flooded is an experience that more of us will be forced to endure.
Edward Platt's first book, Leadville, won a Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He is also the author of The City of Abraham, a journey through Hebron, the only place in the West Bank where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side.
The Great Flood: Travels through a Sodden Landscape will be published by Picador in October.
Image: Flooding in Dumfries. Rainbow International, Flickr.