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UK floods: a warning to those who ignore threat of climate change

Comment: Natural disasters are set to become more common in a warming world, and politicians should take note

Flooding on the Somerset levels (Pic: Environment Agency/Flickr)

Flooding on the Somerset levels (Pic: Environment Agency/Flickr)

By Saleemul Huq

In the past few weeks I have been avidly following the floods in the UK, first in Somerset and then on the Thames and also the media coverage and political debates, from my house in Twickenham, close to the Thames river.

Over these weeks my views went through several changes which I would like to share below.

At first when the farms of the Somerset Levels were inundated with water, leading to the evacuation of cattle and people, I was not particularly impressed by what I saw on the TV.

I come from Bangladesh, where every year during the monsoon we see heavy rainfall leading to floods which last a few days and then drain away.

In order to qualify as severe floods the waters need to come to the rooftops of houses, and have to stay there for many weeks.

However, as the weeks went by and the river levels in the Thames began to swell and water began to seep into houses in my neighborhood, I saw the genuine distress this caused to my neighbours, even though they are relatively well off and live in expensive homes.

At the same time the fact that neighborhood volunteers pro-actively started taking actions to help each other, without waiting for officials to arrive, also reminded me if how neighbours and communities are the most important first resource in times of distress – whether it be in the UK or Bangladesh.

Report: Cameron says climate change is a ‘serious threat’

Another aspect of the coverage that intrigued me was the initial lack of response from the politicians and then their sudden move to action as they realised the extent of anger linked to their lack of action.

One indicator of this was the declaration by Prime Minister David Cameron of an allocation of £130 million for the Somerset region alone, where a few thousand families and farms are affected.

This sum (which is almost certain to rise further) is more than what the UK has pledged to support adaptation in the world’s forty eight least developed countries (LDCs).

The debate rapidly boiled down to the fact that preventive actions, such as dredging the rivers, had not been taken ahead of time despite advice to do so, resulting in loss and damage which is now estimated at least a billion pounds and rising.

This debate made me recall the arguments during the last UN climate conference in Warsaw where the UK (along with other developed countries) argued against the setting up of an international mechanism on loss and damage arguing that adaptation was sufficient.

Loss and damage: why is this an important issue?

The Thames Flood Barrier is often cited as the epitome of adaptation to coastal flooding to protect London. However, the barrier is no use against flood waters coming downstream.

In fact the barrier had had to be used almost as frequently over the last few weeks as it was all last year, in order to prevent the high daily high tide from exacerbating the flood waters coming from upstream.

The loss and damage from the floods being suffered now, although not directly attributable to human induced climate change, certainly has links to climate change and such events will be more frequent in future due to human induced climate change

So ultimately the UK’s leaders (from all political parties) will not just have to explain to their current flood affected voters why they failed to take action when they should have, but to explain to their children and grand children why they didn’t take action to prevent the worst impacts of climate change when they could have.

Saleemul Huq is a Senior Fellow in the Climate Change Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development

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