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Editorial: Better flood protection is not the only answer

It is hard to remember that last spring the chief weather threat was drought

It will be scant consolation to anyone affected by the floods over the past week to learn that a slight easing of the weather conditions is expected. Some 400 flood warnings and alerts have been issued. Acres of farmland are under water. Nearly 500 homes have been inundated, and the plans of many thousands to join family or friends for Christmas were thwarted by roads and rail lines cut. The main line from London to Plymouth is unlikely to be open before Friday. Depending on your perspective, either Cornwall or the bulk of England is cut off.

One immediate, and regrettable, result will be that repairs and maintenance to many railways, scheduled – so it seemed – with unusual efficiency this year, will be postponed, as emergency work takes precedence. But the news is not all bad. It is heartening to learn how the emergency services have risen to the occasion and wonder at the customary resilience shown by British travellers towards adversity.

Those who rescued a woman swept away by floodwater near Barnstaple sounded as overjoyed as they were astonished to have found her alive, while reports abounded of friends and neighbours doing their best to help out. All that is as it should be, but still gratifying, not least because for some this is the second or even third time their home or business has been flooded this year.

In the face of such watery misery, it is hard to remember that, as recently as last spring, the chief weather threat was drought, with the water table especially in the east of the country at a record low. The inevitable hosepipe ban followed, kept in force in many areas until early summer. Now the reports are all of land so saturated that almost the slightest shower causes flooding, and this year stands to be among the wettest on record.

It is not enough, though, to reflect on the rapid turnaround that our capricious weather can achieve when it wants to. What the past 12 months have illustrated is that parts of the country are more vulnerable to extremes of weather than perhaps they might have been if the infrastructure had not been so neglected, if more thought had been given to applications of technology, or if planning authority had been exercised differently.

Given that the impact of climate change on this part of the world may be less to raise temperatures than to increase volatility and exacerbate weather extremes, then it is on defences that investment needs to be focused.

It is all very well – and admirable – for the emergency services to work around the clock building temporary flood barriers, as they have just done in Shropshire, to keep homes dry through the holiday, but there are dangers in becoming too proficient in such interim solutions. They offer a pretext for postponing the more substantial, longer term – and doubtless more expensive – protection that is required.

Some risks may be relatively easily reduced. The practice of building housing and community facilities on flood plains needs to be reviewed. It is questionable whether this was ever such a good idea as it seemed to contractors looking for promising sites, but if water is going to be a bigger problem in future, planning policy must be revised to take this into account.

Other risks are harder to tackle. The disparity between the drought-prone east of the country and the flood-prone west argues for a better integrated distribution system able to get surplus water to where it is needed. Enhanced flood protection may look like the overriding priority as 2012 draws to a close, but it is only one part of a bigger and more complex picture.