‘It stands to reason’, said the farmer, ‘we’ve only had these quick, high floods since the foresters ploughed those hills up there. ’
This man’s knowledge of, dependence on, and reaction to his local river made his reasoning easy. Yet to a government hydrologist, as was the author at the time of the conversation, proof of a link between preparing upland soils for successful afforestation and a change in the unit hydrograph for the basin would take a decade of expensive research. After its completion the logical outcome of the proven link, between land there and water here, i.e. modifying forestry practice, compensating the farmer or afforesting a less sensitive hillside, would not translate into public policy. There were simply no river-related land planning policies in many countries; the UK was no exception.
The outcome was that local authority engineers built the farmer a bridge over the newly flood-prone stream. Perhaps it is the heroic talent of the civil engineer to solve in this way point problems where they arise which has discouraged the ‘look upstream’ mentality of the local, the peasant, the river enthusiast. Societies have built dams, canals, flood walls, bridges and other structures to ‘stabilise’ river systems without questioning the cause of the instability. Rather like early technical medicine, we have used the equivalents of drugs and pain-killers to cure ‘now’ problems whereas some claim the true human talent lies with holism and the longer term.
This book tries to assemble a body of knowledge which supports a very broad approach to river problems; physically destabilised river systems will be a major theme but polluted and biologically sterilised systems are all amenable to ‘the treatment’. At the other extreme, there is increasing demand to conserve, by management intervention, those relatively few pristine wilderness river systems which remain.
‘The treatment’ as a concept comes relatively easily to the geographer. Fluvial geomorphology, a major feature of geographical research in the second half of this century, has provided chapter and verse on the natural dynamics of the river basin, which function to transfer water and sediments to the ocean, leaving a characteristic morphology—river channel, flood-