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Nowhere is climate change more visible than along our coastline. Communities are experiencing more frequent flooding, greater intensity storms, not to mention potential loss of livelihoods and property than ever before. Just what then, might the future have in store for these communities? Tim O’Riordan and Jessica Milligan from the University of East Anglia consider the question.
he coasts of Britain have finally begun to be seen by the public and politicians for what they really are. They are, for the most part, unstable, dynamic, exposed to flooding and erosion, yet heavily populated for residence, commerce, leisure and nature conservation value. In 2004 the Office of Science and Technology published a report on possible scenarios for coastal and river valley flooding over the rest of this century. In one way, this was a highly speculative move. Nobody seriously believes we can forecast over 95 years with any certainty. But in another important way, the exercise highlights how we treat our coasts, and how we should, as a democracy, prepare our future generations for plausible, safe and vibrant coastal livelihoods, while we have the time to make the required adjustments.
The Foresight Future Flooding reports (Evans et al, 2004) examined four scenarios (story-based predictions set in plausible assumptions) of coastal and river valley change over the next 95 years. These provided a basis for examining how: society might be organised; what values it may hold; what greenhouse gas emissions and consequent sea level rise would be, with attendant salt incursion of coastal freshwater sources.
involves a sense of social autonomy and high greenhouse gas emissions. 2 A more national-based approach to shaping economy and society, with an emphasis on national dialogue and embedded well-being. There would be a greater sense of national responsibility for future outcomes, both adverse and beneficial, and middling levels of greenhouse gas emissions. 3 A locally based economy, with much more emphasis on social responsibility. There would be relatively low emissions and local solutions to planning and environmental management would be encouraged. 4 A global sustainability scenario with a high emphasis on international action and international obligation over all aspects of sustainable
The four scenarios were based on the following criteria:
1 A rapidly expanding global market driven economy with an emphasis on innovation, competitiveness and technological advance. This would create a strong sense of interdependence, but also a willingness to experiment with market-based approaches to regulation and social behaviour. The scenario
6 The edge Winter 2006
The coasts of Britain have finally begun to be seen by the public and politicians for what they really are. They are, for the most part, unstable, dynamic, exposed to flooding and erosion, yet heavily populated for residence, commerce, leisure and nature conservation value.
development. This would result in low emissions with a strong commitment to regulation and more proactive of resources and management landscapes to be sure that they remain viable. The Foresight study concluded that, at present, two million properties worth over £440 billion, are at risk of flooding from rivers and seas. There are 80,000 urban properties at risk of localised downpours which overwhelm drains and cause water to stand around. This outcome, coupled with the likelihood of much more intensive thunderstorms could put properties worth a further £200 billion at risk of flooding, even those nowhere near a river or the coast. Potentially this ‘overwhelmed drainage’ effect could move huge amounts of insurance money and public investment away from proactive management of rivers and coasts. Under the four scenarios, the Foresight team estimated that future annual flood-related costs could rise from the current £1.4 billion to £2.5 billion under the ‘local sustainability’ scenario, and over £30 billion under the ‘market-based’ scenario. Expressed in terms of costs in relation to national income, the two scenarios based on more communal approaches (global and local sustainability) could involve lower overall burden than at present.
2 There is no way that all future coasts can be defended to the present levels of ‘holding the line’ without massive additional costs and even greater ultimate vulnerability to the ‘unsettled’ future coastline. Holding a mobile coastline in place means that nearby coasts may be starved of protective sediment, and hence further exposed to coastal hazard. So holding the line is not only costly, but will result in inter-community squabbles as community after community tries to defend itself. This is a recipe for chaos and intransigence over any future coastal planning. It is another reason why it is necessary to ensure that local authorities are encouraged to cooperate along naturally-functioning coastlines. 3 Designing a coast for retreat and reconstruction to more natural mechanisms of defence (offshore sandbars, tidal lagoons, salt marshes, sand dunes, wetlands, and flood soak areas) will require visions of possible future alignments, creative planning to avoid future risk, and a high degree of public involvement based on a strong commitment to trust and social justice. This means that the future of coastal management cannot remain just within flood management policy, but must embrace new forms of settlement planning, economic development and social relationships. This is a comprehensive sustainability agenda, and one that lies well beyond the current remit of Defra, bringing in local government, planning, training and enterprise elements of the public and private sectors. The current circumstances of coastal planning are neither geomorphologically sensitive nor socially tolerable. The present official aim, namely, to establish a new generation of shoreline management plans, to invite public consultation, and to refuse any compensation for loss of
property value, simply will fail. Already local authorities are rejecting the new breed of SMPs, Coastal MPs are limbering up for a ‘hold the line’ stand-off and citizen willingness to get involved in creative dialogue is evaporating in exasperation, anxiety and despair. There is no solution for all this, under current arrangements. Indeed, matters will only get worse if the government tries to carry on in the manner in which it is currently operating.
The way forward is:
q To hold all coasts for a further five years to give everyone time to come to terms with future realities q To share the current responsibilities of Defra by placing the enlarged opportunities in the hands of a wide-ranging approach to sustainable coastal livelihoods. Land use planning should be designed to move property progressively away from vulnerable areas and to stop any new build in all possible future zones of flood threat q To use the sustainability principles to establish coastal action plans that shape livelihoods and social relations for long-term coastal recession and reconstruction. Plans that help ensure new coastal landscapes and settlements are healthy, economically active on a highly localised basis, and socially united by just treatment and fair play.
The implications of this exercise are threefold:
1 The effects of overwhelmed drainage in urban areas, notably where properties are insured and unprotected, could involve a huge political bias in favour of investing in urban drainage improvements. Yet managing water before (by better design of buildings) and after it hits the ground (by improving the water retention capacities of river catchments) should be the priority for drought-prone and water-short areas.
Tim O’Riordan and Jessica Milligan, Tyndall Centre and CSERGE, University of East Anglia Emails: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org Tyndall Centre: www.tyndall.ac.uk Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE): www.uea.ac.uk/env/cserge
The edge Winter 2006
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