Floods: Here to Stay?

On the day I finished the first draft of Flood: Nature and Culture, the UK was subject to 106 flood alerts, and the Environment Agency said five million homes were at risk. We’d just experienced the wettest June on record, and that was preceded by the wettest April ever. And things haven’t calmed down since. Last year saw the agency issuing the highest number of flood alerts and warnings in its history.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that throughout history floods are the natural disaster that has afflicted humans more often than any other. The deadliest ever natural disaster was a flood in 1931 when the Yellow River and the Yangtze burst their banks in China, submerging an area nearly as big as England. Up to 3.75 million people lost their lives in the flood itself, then in the famine and disease that followed, while the second deadliest natural disaster in history was another flood of the Yellow River in 1887, which cost up to 2.5 million lives.

And, of course, floods come in all shapes and sizes – caused by rain, melting snow and ice, storms, tsunamis, tides, the failure of dams or dikes – meaning they can strike almost anywhere.

Still, there does appear to be something unusual going on. London’s Thames Flood Barrier was closed just four times in the 1980’s, 35 times in the 1990’s, and more than 80 times from 2000 to 2010, while across the world, a United Nations report said the number of natural disasters had quintupled over the previous four decades, and that most of the increase could be put down to what it called ‘hydro-meteorological’ events, such as floods.

One reason to expect more damage from flooding is simply that there are more people, and most of them have more possessions. In 1950, the population of the world was 2.5 billion. In 2011 it passed 7 billion, and recent years have seen a big increase in the numbers living and working in regions known to be prone to flooding. 

The Thai floods of 2011, for example, were particularly costly because areas that had once provided a safety valve for overflows from the Chao Phraya river, were now being used for industrial estates.

Some scientists and politicians still dispute that global warming is happening, but the phenomenon has colonised the creative imagination, with movies such as Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow conjuring up worlds devastated by apocalyptic floods, while novelists as diverse as J.G. Ballard, Bernard Malamud, Stephen Baxter and Maggie Gee have done the same thing in words. Some of them drew on the catastrophic flood myths that are found in dozens of religions all over the globe – myths that often bear an uncanny resemblance to the familiar story of Noah’s ark.

While I was researching Flood, I was struck by the fact that some of humanity’s most ambitious structures have been built to try to combat flooding, so that the founder of China’s first real imperial dynasty owed his position to his success in fighting the Yellow River, while in more recent times, the American Society of Civil Engineers has called for Dutch sea defences to be regarded as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Well, if the majority of scientists are right, and global warming is happening, we’re going to have to become even more resourceful in finding ways to defend ourselves against the rising waters.

John Withington