Leading Article: Should we go with the rivers' flow?

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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE whose feet are still dry, the floods that have risen around England are the stuff of wonder, a turbulent reassertion of natural forces transforming familiar landscapes into shimmering seas and swamping the careful constructions of the human mind. More benign than the fires that have ravaged Sydney and Hollywood, they have the same power to put human beings in their place.

Unfortunately, they are also expensive, inconvenient and occasionally dangerous, so they provoke mundane questions such as whether anyone is to blame and what should be done to stop them recurring. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. One argues for better defences, more effective control of rivers and stricter monitoring of planning applications in flood-prone areas. In other words, more money on top of the pounds 250m already spent each year on river flood defences.

The other school advocates going with the flow, accepting that rivers are part of a complex ecological balance that must be carefully managed. Rivers should be cherished and allowed to overflow in the right places, like the great alluvial valleys of history that relied on annual floods to fertilise the land. Even Britain has its modest equivalents of the Nile.

Although this week's floods are of the unpredictable type, cyclical departures from the norm that recur when a particular set of circumstances coincide, their effects can be aggravated or mitigated by human intervention. Urban developers drive water into more concentrated areas. Farmers dig drains and dykes and turn riverside grazing into arable land. Too much control then sets off unpredictable reactions that create a demand for more controls.

No one would advocate simply letting nature take its course, yet the economics of spending millions of pounds to protect areas where people do not have to live might be re-examined. In some areas it could be cheaper to give nature a freer hand. The same may apply to farmlands set aside under edict from Brussels that could be restored to their glory as water meadows. If all the costs were taken into consideration, it is wholly possible that rational accounting would strengthen the arguments for a more ecological approach. Meanwhile, it is a sobering lesson to be reminded not only of the power of nature, but that nature may sometimes know best.