Sustainable flood management enables communities to adapt to the realities of climate change. Restoring natural defences against flooding brings social, economic and environmental benefits to the  whole community.

Pity the people of Somerset Levels. The last thing they need as the weather report threatens more rain and gales, is a rush of politicians anxious to pour blame on the other party.  And they certainly don’t need some smart-arse copywriter at the other end of the country blowing the dust off an old manual on natural flood management in Scotland.

[This was first published in  2014, reposting in August 2022 as climate extremes demand we start to learn from nature]

But bear with me. Slowing the Flow ‘a natural solution to flooding problems’, published by WWF Scotland in 2006,  is a beautifully succinct explanation of what we can do to reduce the risk of ever-more flooding across the whole of Britain as climate change brings heavier rains and rising sea levels. Dredging is not mentioned once. Flood walls are referred to only as an expensive way of pushing the problem further downstream.

Building on flood plains prevents the river overflowing where and when it needs to and draining wetlands simply speeds the water on downstream. During flash floods, hard surfaces propel rainfall runoff into concrete lined drains and culverts which were not designed for such high volumes of water.

As a freelance writer I was hired to help pull together the words from a report of a fascinating project led by WWF Scotland to demonstrate how restoring the natural flow of the river could reduce flooding and bring many social and environmental benefits (not least because it means bringing together many different bodies with vested and conflicting interests).

This was a partnership (funded by HSBC) with Clackmannanshire, Scotland’s smallest county. Small enough to make progressive decision-making relatively easy.  Big enough to demonstrate how a river rises, falls and winds through floodplains and what happens when its path is hindered by human behaviour.  I spent a memorable few days in the uplands of Clackmannanshire with a hydrologist who opened my eyes to the way land use has rushed the river’s journey into town.

Like most of Scotland’s rivers, the River Devon seems in a hurry to reach the sea. Burns gathering high in the Ochils rush off steep slopes as they join the Devon’s twisting course down through Clackmannanshire on its way to the Forth. Centuries of human activities have combined to speed the flow of water off the land. Deforestation, drainage, grazing and erosion all helped to create the bare ‘slippery slopes’ which hasten the river’s journey to villages and towns in the floodplains.

What can we do?  Well, we should stop building on floodplains of course but there’s more to it than that. Slowing the flow means letting the river return to a winding course through floodplains, replanting native trees to soak up moisture, reducing upland grazing that turns hilltops into slippery slopes, restoring hedgerows and riverbank vegetation to reduce soil erosion spilling top soil and pollution into streams, ponds, lakes and rivers.  In towns we could stop chucking rubbish on the ground: plastic blocks pipes and creates mini dams overflowing into streets and homes. We might give up turning gardens into parking lots: hard surfaces speed the flow into overloaded drains and sewers. Let the river take its time in the country and hurry unimpeded through towns and villages.

Water of Leith floodwalls

The right course? Edinburgh’s expensive Water of Leith flood defences under construction.

I’m surprised the Scottish Government has not found a discreet way – it would not be right to boast – of drawing attention to the fact that (with encouragement from WWF Scotland) the Scottish Parliament was the first in the UK to enact a European directive promoting sustainable flood management.  Under the Water Environment Water Services Scotland Act 2003 (WEWS for short) public bodies have a duty to promote sustainable flood management.

How well are they doing? We’ll have to wait and see. Natural flood management has gained support of policy makers on both sides of the border. The Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act became law in 2009 and the following year  England also embraced the value of ‘restoring natural processes’ in the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010. But there is powerful resistance from farmers, landowners and property developers who have invested heavily in developments on floodplains. So far they still make too much money by going against the flow.


Read more: Slowing the flow

Updated feature image shows flooding at Pond Cottage 2017. This summer, 2022, the stream has flowed to a trickle and the pond is very shallow but still supports birds and bats.