The Root of This Crisis? A Mad Dash for EU; ANALYSIS

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Root of This Crisis? A Mad Dash for EU; ANALYSIS


Byline: GEORGE MONBIOT ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNER AND GUARDIAN COLUMNIST

ADEVASTATING flood has two components. One of them is obvious: lots of water falling from the sky. The other is less discussed but just as important: land and rivers with no capacity to absorb the water and hold it back.

A series of perverse European and government policies ensures that when heavy rain falls, it is rushed off the land and funnelled into our towns and cities - with terrible consequences for those who live there.

Flood management is like medicine: prevention is better than cure. Preventing rivers from rising to dangerous levels is a safer and sounder strategy than allowing a great surge of water to gather, then praying the barriers we have built around our homes are high enough.

This means applying good science across the whole catchment area, from the mountaintops to the bottom of the river basins, where our towns are concentrated. But everywhere public spending is being used to make catastrophic floods inevitable. The heaviest rain falls in the hills, and what happens there is a crucial determinant of the impacts downstream.

Rational policies would seek to ensure that water hitting the hills is held there for as long as possible before it begins its downhill journey. And this, above all, means having trees and other deep vegetation.

A study in mid-Wales discovered that where trees are allowed to grow on the hills, water is absorbed by the soil 67 times more efficiently than where they are absent.

Where sheep have grazed the vegetation closely and compacted the soil with their hooves, the land behaves almost like concrete: water flashes off immediately and begins its devastating rush downhill. But it is not the farmers who are to blame: it is European rules which ensure that trees are more or less banned from our hills.

FARMING in the uplands, where the soil is poor and the climate is harsh, is sustained by public money. We like to believe that the sturdy shepherds we see on BBC1's Countryfile are making their living from selling sheep, but the sheep lose money. Most hill farmers would go out of business were it not for European farm subsidies. And the rules attached to these subsidies forbid them from changing the way they manage their land.

To claim your money, you don't need to produce a single lamb chop. You merely need to ensure that your land is in 'agricultural condition' - and this means bare. Farm subsidies are paid by the hectare: the more land you possess that is in 'agricultural condition', the more money you are given. The Government publishes a list of what are called Permanent Ineligible Features (PIFs). Any land that harbours these features is disqualified from subsidies, so farmers have a powerful incentive to erase them.

Among the PIFs are woods, dense scrub, bracken, ponds, wide hedges and ungrazed reed beds - a comprehensive catalogue of features that impede the flow of water downhill.

The PIF rule is one of the reasons why, above about 650ft, you will struggle to find trees almost anywhere in Britain. …

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