Flooding and Adaptation in Scotland

This is an attempt at the transcript from a live Twitter broadcast

I know I said I would do this broadcast at the weekend, and it’s now almost exactly the opposite of that, but never mind!

We often hear about how the Western world is responsible for something we don’t suffer from – but the Climate Crisis will get to us too. It’s just that we can sit and pretend it won’t for a bit longer. Unsurprisingly, the poorest in our society, both individuals and communities, will bare the brunt of the impact once the crisis hits us.

The problem isn’t population, it’s colonialism and an unjust system. Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere is destroying our planet, but it’s also important to understand how this will affect us, and this broadcast will explore how this will effect Scottish communities specifically.

It’s also important to note that Scotland is one small piece of a tiny island off one continent, and every community on it will have a different experience of how it will be affected by the climate and ecological emergency, and how it mitigates and tries to adapt to it. What I’ll talk about today is just flood risk management, so a tiny component of an overall picture.

That means that, all over the world, communities will have their own complex and individual narratives that are replicated millions of times. Basically; we can’t forget local communities, especially more rural ones. wherever they are.

The scientific predictions we have right now are probably not dramatic enough, which is pretty scary, but also true. The current science, particularly the IPCC report, doesn’t tend to factor in things like tipping points, and runaway warming. Every time we get more evidence, the predictions become bleaker and bleaker. Most importantly to Western Europe is the fact that the jet stream, which controls our weather, is proving difficult to map. This means that, really, we’re probably underestimating just how much “freak weather” we are going to experience, and this dramatically impacts the risk of pluvial flooding (pluvial flooding is flooding caused by rainfall).

At Scotland’s Flood Risk Management Conference, there was generally an understanding that the crisis was underway, and this means that we have slammed shut the window of opportunity for mitigation alone; we now have to face the reality that we will be adapting for as long as our societies exist – but this doesn’t mean that we need to be treating mitigation as anything other than essential.

This also does not mean that adaptation can’t be hopeful, or even act as mitigation in some way as well.

I’m going to talk about Natural Flood Management, known as NFM.

It’s important to note two things:

– I am by far, in no way, anything close to an expert in flood risk management – I just think that, for the situation that we are facing, it is good for even daft people like me to have some understanding of what we’re probably facing.

– Secondly, NFM is not a universal solution; we shouldn’t expect it to, say, prevent flooding in natural flood planes. It certainly has scope for further implementation, however.

Flooding is natural, but some flooding problems come from us trying to fight nature, particularly when we straighten rivers. Rivers are straightened for many reasons, often to build roads, railways, or to drain the land for other reasons. It’s quite cool; you can look back on maps to see when a river has been straightened, and this process has occured for 100s of years.

This has become an increased threat in recent years; warm air holds more moisture, and more moisture means more rain. More rain, unsurprisingly, means more flooding, but it’s important to understand how this works in practice as it means that it can allow communities to protect their homes before a flood hits, and so understanding helps to create more resilient communities.

We can be fairly confident in the correlation between rainfall and river flow, due in part to a phenomenon called “hydrological lag” – the time between rainfall and subsequent rise in water level.

Crucially, the lag is quicker – or the time between rainfall and water level rise is shorter – if the ground is already saturated – something that will become more frequent if there is more freak weather as a result of the climate crisis.

Part of adapting to the climate emergency is finding ways to increase hydrological lag, as this can give communities more time to prepare for floods after heavy rainfall.

NFM can help with this; research has shown NFM can increase lag time. In a catchment area near Peebles, lag time was about an hour longer than before woody flow restrictors were introduced upstream. The Peebles catchment area was relatively small; about 10sq-km, which was previously thought to be the upper limit of effectiveness for woody flow restrictors, but recently have been shown to work on areas up to 32sq-km.

The Allan Water Improvement Project saw quite a large catchment benefit from nature in flood prevention.

48.2ha of bog was rewetted, and 790 peat dams created, with revegetation to recover the peat. This takes up a huge amount of water, and so is NFM as it stops this water from building up in rivers, but it also plays a role in carbon capture as well as biodiversity.

Peat plays a very important role in carbon capture and retention, which is why it is so important that it remains intact everywhere, but particularly in places like the Congo Basin. I could talk for a long time about peat, but this broadcast is getting long enough as it is, so maybe one for another day!

On the peatlands, there is also the issue of invasive, or non-indigenous, species – removing them can lead to soil degradation and run-off (heightening flood risk), but left alone they are damaging to biodiversity as they can devastate local species.

In the Allan Water Improvement Project, there has been an effort to remove barriers to fish migration as well. All this shows how NFM can be so beneficial to biodiversity, as well as playing a role in mitigation – alongside its primary purpose of reducing flood risk.

In Aviemore and Hawick, NFM has shown how a strong community link has to be established between organisations and residents in order for dialogue and implementation to be successful. All our lives are going to change because of the climate and ecological crisis, so it is vitally important that we shake up our perceptions about society; ones that have been forced upon us by an unjust system.

– You are never “done” with learning – anyone can understand the basics of flood risk management if they believe they can, for instance.

– We can’t fight nature – in many cases, the best things to do is undo the mistakes we’ve made in the past, whether that be to remeander (make rivers wiggly again), rewet, or rewild, or something else

– Adaptation doesn’t have to be hopeless; done well, it can offer us more engaged, connected local communities.

However, it is MOST important to note that we can never adapt enough to make the climate crisis a non-problem. Our lives will change, for the worse, and on many places elsewhere on the globe, that is already happening. That isn’t fair, and we should all start caring about it. We have to fight for every fraction of a degree.

Flooding is natural and happens and will happen, but, as I said at the conference, it is better the devil we know and can prepare for, than a devil of our own making that we haven’t a hope of controlling.

Climate justice is the only solution to the climate crisis, and there is no solution for Scottish communities if there is no justice for Ugandan children, Guatemalan farmers, or Inuit artists.

I was so so so lucky to get to go the conference last Thursday, and I learned an awful lot about so many things I’ve not mentioned here. I don’t want to give out any wrong information; as I said, I am absolutely not an expert! As if we’re all not busy enough, I would highly recommend doing some of your own research into this fascinating topic. Don’t just take my word for it – I’m an idiot.

(Then I faffed around a bit and then ended the broadcast)

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