Saturday, 1 February 2014

Somerset is Drowning

"We need Dutch expertise here"

Water as far as the eye can see. An area of 65 km² in Somerset has drowned. For a whole month, houses have been under water here. Roads are impassable, whole villages are cut off from the outside world. Fury and disappointment can be felt everywhere. "We aren't important to the government in London," says pub owner Jim Winkworth with a sigh.
This weekend, a spring tide is expected so the water will rise even further. A state of emergency has been declared. The Red Cross hands out packages with firewood, volunteers and soldiers drive around in large watertight 4x4's to make sure that children can get to school. The Fire Brigade and police provide a shuttle service by boat for the villages of Muchelney to get out. The village is completely shut off from the outside world.
"We're used to a bit of water," says Charlie Vaughan Johnson. Muchelney is on a hill, between the polders. They serve to trap the water in an emergency. "Normally we have about 10 cm of water once or twice a year but it's gone again within a couple of days."
Now the water is 2 metres deep in some places. Elizabeth Nightingale's house, which last century only got wet in 1928, has been flooded for the last two years. "There's 35 cm of water in the living room. Fortunately we still have electricity and heating," she laughs but unhappily.
The largest source of annoyance is that the rivers have not been dredged for 20 years. As a result they cannot drain the water from the polders which were created in the 17th century by Dutch engineers. The responsible Environment Agency doesn't see the need, as relatively few people live in the area. "If you don't dredge for years, the river silts up. The pumps here are antique. Last year a critical point was reached," says Duncan McGinty, district-council chairman for Sedgemoor. The polders were also flooded last year. Hydraulic engineers suggested this would only happen "at most once in 100 years". But this year the water has reached record heights again. Inhabitants are hoping for the best. This weekend there is a spring tide coming and it's been raining hard for the last few days. "Water comes from all sides. From the sea, from the hills and from the sky. But it has nowhere to go." It'll be another four months before the water level is back to normal.

A tractor and a lifeboat are used to transport the inhabitants of Muchelney along the flooded roads. The village has only been accessible white water for weeks.
Some way off, Neal Craddock is staring at a yellow warehouse. His flooring factory was there. "Of course, we knew the area could flood. That's why we had built a dike a metre high around the factory. But the water just flowed over the top." Last year, the businessman had £1.5 million damages, This year that amount will be even higher. He couldn't insure himself, just like most inhabitants of the area: insurance companies simply refuse cover.
The farmers in the area also face problems. "All our land is under water," worries Heather Venn. We have a sepcial variety of grass that can cope with it. But not for more than two weeks. After that, everything is dead." She has no idea where her cows will have to graze this summer.
"For everyone who lives here, it's clear that the government has been negligent," according to Spencer Dixon, member of the FLAG campaign in which dozens of inhabitants have joined forces. They meet up in the evenings in Jim Winkworth's King Alfred Pub with a view of the sandbags intended to keep the River Parrett in check. Thanks to their unceasing efforts, the responsible minister came to take a look this week and during Prime Minister's question time, David Cameron agreed that dredging should commence as soon as possible. That wouldn't have happened unless the inhabitants had kept hammering on about the consequences of the floods.
"Dredging on its own isn't enough. This area has been neglected for more than 20 years. And in the mid-term, we have to create more facilities to store the water upstream. And in the mouth of the river, a flood barrier is essential to hold back the high tide," says Dixon.
And the inhabitants have no faith whatsoever in the British government. "We need Dutch expertise. You know know how to keep your feet dry," says Daniel Graham, whose land is almost entirely underwater. "It's never been this bad in 40 years."

(De Telegraaf - 1 February 2014 - Arnoud Breitbarth)

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