Floods in Britain: capitalism creating and exacerbating ‘natural’ disasters

As cuts, privatisation and climate change collide to create a perfect storm, it’s becoming clearer than ever that we’ve got to be red to be green!

Proletarian writers

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Forty percent budget cuts since 2010 have resulted in flood prevention being seen as unaffordable by councils across the country.

Proletarian writers

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Significant areas of Britain found themselves under water over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, with three storms – named Desmond, Eva and Frank by the Met Office – wreaking havoc across the country.

In the aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), held in Paris from 30 November-12 December 2015, Britain has received an immaculately-timed reminder of the threat represented by climate change.

Whilst COP21 was presented as a landmark success in the imperialist media, diplomacy singularly failed to achieve the kind of deal that is actually needed to secure the future of human life on the planet. With efforts to tackle climate change left to the ‘leadership’ of by private corporations, this could scarcely be otherwise. (See Climate change conference – Imperialist hands irreversibly tied by the profit motive, Lalkar, January 2016)

The flooding caused by the storms impacted broad swathes of the country, including Cumbria, Manchester, Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders. The real magnitude of the damage, both financial and personal, will not be known for some time, if ever.

What is known is that homes, workplaces and entire communities have been devastated – and in some places destroyed. In the week between Christmas and New Year alone, as river levels reached new records, 6,700 houses in the north of England were flooded. Of course, the vast majority of these were the homes of working-class people.

Politicians were, of course, quick to extend their ‘sympathy’ to those whose homes were flooded at Christmas, but sympathy will not help them pick up the bill – especially in the many cases of poor people with no insurance who now face total ruin. Mohammad Khan, general insurance leader at the accountancy and consulting firm PwC confirmed this, saying: “The storms this time have generated a far greater proportion of non-insured losses compared to the total economic damage.” (Quoted in Storm Frank batters northern Britain, experts see costs rising by Carolyn Cohn and Kate Holton, Reuters, 30 December 2015)

With much of the population, including the elderly, faced with the choice of either heating or eating, home insurance can all too easily be seen as a luxury that is far out of reach. This is true even in the best of times for the working class under capitalism – and these are not the best of times.

Flooding that defies statistics

Arguably the hardest-hit area was Cumbria, which experienced an historic third major flood in 10 years, having suffered similar deluges in both 2005 and 2009. A national record-breaking 341.4mm of rainfall fell in a 24-hour period on 5 December. Only after the event did any government help come – in the form of a £1m band aid. (See More floods in Cumbria as UK government announces £51m support for flood victims, FloodList, 10 December 2015)

After they flooded in 2009, the National Environment Research Council began a study using sediment records from the region’s famous lakes. The soon-to-be published results will show that the three floods of the last decade have been Cumbria’s worst in 600 years. It will also show that, in each case, such a severe flood had only a 0.001 percent probability of occurring. (See Under water again – When will Britain learn how to manage floods?, FloodList, 11 December 2015)

This is typically expressed as meaning that any one of the recent floods had a chance of occurring once every thousand years. It would be more accurate, though, to say that in any given year, there is a one-in-a-thousand chance of such a flood occurring – a subtle but important difference.

However we choose to express the findings, though, the key point is that just one of these floods was highly unlikely to have taken place. To have three disasters of such magnitude in so short a space of time is a statistical anomaly that requires further investigation. Purely natural causes are extremely unlikely to be at the root of such events.

And, of course, when we look for other factors at work, we very quickly find that there is a man-made force that can explain the situation: namely, climate change.

Or, at the very least, global warming explains why we are experiencing such frequent and unusual storms. In explaining the resulting floods, a variety of other factors must also be considered: for instance, flood defences and prevention.

Austerity at work: defences neglected

In the case of Cumbria, the role of landowners is also an important one. Local grouse moors, sheep and dairy farms have been accused of contributing to the severity of floods in the low-lying towns. Calls have been made for the land to be returned to peat bogs to soak up rain in hilly areas.

Daniel Johns, who heads the government’s climate change committee, said: “For too long, landowners have been left to their own devices. We have to recognise there are some powerful vested interests involved. We have to decide what uplands are for in the context of climate change: grouse moors and marginal farmland or slowing down water.” (Call to close grouse moors to prevent flooding by Andrew Bounds, Financial Times, 30 December 2015)

Either the interests of the people or the profits of the few will prevail: these cannot coexist. Left to the free hand of the market, many of our towns and homes will perish.

On Christmas Day, large areas of Leeds and York had waist-high water levels. This resulted in stranded cars, families swimming to safety and rescues by dinghy. The historic Elland Road Bridge in Leeds was damaged beyond repair.

As in Cumbria, the government acted after the fact, announcing a £33m flood-defence system for parts of the River Aire in Leeds, which is due to be in place by 2017. While the new defence is welcome, it clearly comes too late. Added to this is the insult that the defence was initially proposed in 2010, but the government rejected it as being too expensive. (See Finally: U-turn sees flood defence scheme promised for River Aire in Leeds by Kate Proctor, Yorkshire Post, 4 January 2016)

Such is the short-sightedness of a bourgeois government in times of economic crisis. In true-to-type penny-pinching form, Prime Minister Cameron and his fellow spivs in government tried to save money by ignoring the proposed flood defences. As a result, Leeds was flooded, causing as yet untold millions in damage. Now that the defences are, after all, to be implemented, not only has the £33m not been saved after all, but tens of millions of damage has been caused as a result of the delay. In addition, the government is footing the bill for a £40m Yorkshire-wide clear-up.

This insane story is being repeated across a number of areas. Moreover, 40 percent budget cuts since 2010 have resulted in flood prevention being seen as unaffordable by councils across the country. Blundering, short-sighted incompetence would be too kind a description. Indeed, the the parliamentary environmental audit committee has been explicitly warned by experts in recent years that reducing money for flood defences would be a false economy. And so the case has proven to be. (See Revealed: how Tory cuts are wrecking UK flood defences by John Vidal and Toby Helm, The Guardian, 2 January 2016)

Whilst the precise scale of the damage is as yet unknown, some insight has been provided by the consultancy firm KPMG, which has estimated a total cost to the British economy from the recent floods of £5bn. Even taking ouf of account the high human cost, the government has failed purely on the level of economic management. (Reuters, op cit)

The extent of government culpability for this ‘natural disaster’ is highlighted by a leaked document written jointly by all the bodies responsible for flood prevention, and which was seen by ministers just 24 hours before the first flooding in Cumbria.

As the Guardian revealed: “It was then discussed by floods minister Rory Stewart and Oliver Letwin, the cabinet office minister leading the government’s flooding review.

“The leaked document says: ‘We have had the five wettest years since 2000. The Environment Agency’s funding for maintaining flood assets has fallen by 14 percent. Downward adjustments have also been made to intended revenue spending commitments.’

“It adds: ‘Failure of assets and networks is more likely as extreme weather events become more frequent and unpredictable. We must change our approach to managing water level management assets and systems … adopting a more long-term approach.’

“Referring to the threat to more households as a result of cuts, the experts say: ‘Annual flood and storm damage costs are approximately £1.1bn, according to the Association of British Insurers, and those households at significant risk [of flood damage] through a reduction in our capacity to manage water levels could increase from 330,000 today to 570,000 in 2035.’ Furthermore, a 10-60 percent increase in extreme rainfall could lead to a quadrupling of flooding in urban areas.” (The Guardian, op cit)

The calamities facing the government have continued. In the aftermath of the floods, the environment agency’s PR chief Pam Gilder resigned, walking away with a pay-off of £112,133. It further transpired that the agency has been paying director Ed Mitchell £60,000 to stay at home on gardening leave after they brought in Ms Gilder over his (far more experienced) head to run the department.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the agency chairman Sir Phillip Dilley spent the duration of the storms holidaying at his home in Barbados. Dilley is paid £100,000 per year for his role. Not only was the chairman of the environment agency not in the country, but the agency misled the public by implying that he was.

This farce unravels further if one winds back the clock. In the aftermath of the 2013-14 winter floods, the government set up a cabinet committee on flooding in February 2014. Cameron claimed it would meet “every month until further notice”.

The committee was headed by Oliver Letwin, who was supposed to be responsible for reporting on its findings. However, the committee met only three times before being disbanded, with no reason given and no report produced. (See Flood chiefs in pay row as storms return by Dipesh Gadher and Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times, 3 January 2016)

Water privatisation

Another factor at work in the floods has been profiteering by Britain’s water companies. England and Wales water was privatised in 1989 by the Thatcher government. Scotland and northern Ireland were spared the indignity, although the threat of privatisation has always loomed in the background, with Scotland’s Water Industry Commission being headed by the pro-market Alan Sutherland and Sir Ian Byatt.

Byatt was at Ofwat in 1989 implementing Thatcher’s privatisation in England and Wales. As an aside, it is worth noting that water charges in Scotland are lower than in England and Wales.

The privatisation deal saw Thatcher effectively hand over an additional £6.6bn in cash along with most of the nation’s water supply. This ‘green dowry’ took the form of a £5bn debt write-off and a £1.6bn hand-out.

The ‘efficiency’ of the market strikes again! The privatisation policy was and remains an unmitigated disaster. (See Emanuele Lobina and David Hall, UK Water Privatisation – A Briefing, Public Services International Research Unit of Canada (PSIRU), February 2001)

Arguably the most controversial of Britain’s privatisations, it took our basic means of life and handed it to the profit-hungry bourgeoisie. After the 2013-14 winter floods, it was reported: “While Somerset has been dealing with record rainfalls, many homes across the country have been dealing with another consequence of the deluge: sewage flooding into their homes and down their streets.

“Many of our towns and cities have a combined sewer system. Waste water from lavatories, baths and dishwashers ends up down our drains, flowing into our sewers. Each year we produce some 16bn gallons of this dirty water that has to be dealt with.

“Add to this all the rain that’s been falling on to our roofs, gutters and roads. With a combined system, this also ends up down the sewers. When it rains heavily, the infrastructure can become overwhelmed, with raw sewage discharged on to our streets, rivers and – for a growing number of people – into their homes …

“According to the Consumer Council for Water, complaints from homeowners about sewer flooding are up by 50 percent compared with last year, and it is the water companies that are responsible.

“On average, half our water bills go to dealing with our sewage. Since the industry was privatised in 1989, bills have gone up and up, now 50 percent higher in real terms, and average £388 a year – half of which goes on our sewage.

“Last year, 1,200 homes in the Northumbrian Water area were flooded with sewage; meanwhile, in the United Utilities region, the number was 900.

“As rivers need dredging, so our sewers need unblocking, and that is what many of us believe we pay our water bills for. And we have been paying. And paying. The water companies have been flooded with our money.” (Scandal of £11bn water giants who leave us wading in sewage by Antony Barnett, Daily Mail, 1 February 2014)

To add to this record of disdain for both environmental and human consequences, the mega-rich water companies are also the biggest polluters of our beaches. In the nine years up to 2013, they were punished for over 1,000 incidents of pollution, but the fines came to a paltry total of just £3.5m. In comparison, £1.7bn was taken in pre-tax profits and £2.2bn was paid to shareholders.

With such ‘punishments’ as these for destroying our environment, it is clear that the incentive to ‘go green’ is simply not there. Many of these pollution incidents were the result of burst sewers overflowing. (See Revealed: how UK water companies are polluting Britain’s rivers and beaches by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 3 August 2013)

Despite gargantuan profits, skyrocketing water prices, tax exemptions and government grants, the industry still finds itself under water, so to speak. Between privatisation in 1989 and 2004, the ‘efficient’ market in water provision and management amassed a combined net debt of £20.8bn, whilst cutting staff and contracting out work. (See Ofwat, The Development of the Water Industry in England and Wales, 27 January 2006)

How companies manage to make massive profits whilst building up mass debt is naturally counter-intuitive. Researchers Emanuele Lobina and David Hall of Greenwich University (Canada) explained this strange phenomenon as follows in their report: “It is in the water companies’ interests for the forecasts of capital expenditure, which are used to calculate the allowed price rises, to be higher than actual expenditure. In that case, the companies could use the shortfall in expenditure to boost profits.

“This is, in fact, what happened. Capital expenditure started accelerating before privatisation, rose to a peak in 1991-92, and then levelled off and even fell, although the companies had projected that it would continue to rise at the same rate. This pattern of underspend has been highlighted as unusual in such major works projects …

“The UK water companies have consistently sought to diversify their activities by expanding internationally and into other sectors. These have, for the most part, been unsuccessful, unprofitable, and so supported, subsidised and financed by the excess surpluses on the UK monopoly water and sewerage business.

“In the process, the companies have raised loans to finance their investments, thus transforming the debt-free bounty that they inherited at privatisation into indebted groups with ever lower credit ratings.” (Lobina and Hall, op cit)

Global climate patterns

Of course Britain is not the only country falling victim to extreme weather patterns. We are not in isolation, and extreme weather is on the increase across the globe. Moreover, many of the other countries affected are not so well-placed, either geographically or economically, to be able to deal with the increasingly adverse conditions their people now face.

Not all have the luxury of the parasitic wealth of the British capitalist class, which has the ability to build defences if it wants to, and only lacks the will to do so. Plenty of small countries have the will, but lack the imperialist spoils to readily construct elaborate defence systems.

For instance, socialist Cuba is treating the protection of its shorelines as a matter of national security. What riches it lacks are made up for in will and action. Thanks to its system of socialist planning, it stands far better protected than its other small-island nation neighbours, it is organised and united in action.

Even with all the advantages that socialism brings to tackling the crisis, however, Cuba remains a country gravely at risk from global warming. If this phenomenon persists, 122 coastal Cuban towns face annihilation. (Cuba climate change impact: How scientists say global warming will hurt by Lea Terry, Newsmax, 9 November 2015)

Globally, the picture is stark: “heat extremes that previously only occurred once every 1,000 days are happening four to five time more often”. This was the finding of a study published in Nature Climate Change.

What counts as extreme heat varies according to area. For example, in the south-east of England, temperatures used to reach 33.2C every 1,000 days, whereas now it is closer to once every 200 days. Furthermore: “on average, any given place on Earth will experience 60 percent more extreme rain events and 27 extremely hot days”. (Extreme weather already on increase due to climate change, study finds by Karl Mathieson, The Guardian, 27 April 2015)

Since the industrial revolution, there has been a global temperature increase of 0.85C. Just this small man-made rise has partially served to create the adverse conditions we are experiencing today. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the same rate as we do today, then by 2100 this temperature increase will be between 3-5C and all human life on earth will be under threat.

This is a situation that cannot be redressed by half-measures of the type vaguely agreed to at COP21. ‘Safe’ levels for humanity’s future are believed to be under 2C. The situation can therefore only get worse in the short to medium term.

In Asia, the situation is already critical. A recent report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) explained that river-basin floods in the region during 2014 incurred economic losses of US$16bn. “Other costly disasters included Cyclone HudHud (US$11bn) [in India], followed by the Ludian earthquake [in China] (US$6bn), and the tropical cyclones Lingling and Kajiki [in Japan] (US$5.2bn) …

“The report underlined that the [Asia Pacific] region is one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters. In 2014, over half of the world’s 226 natural disasters occurred in the Asia and Pacific region.

“Although it was a year without a single large-scale catastrophe caused by an earthquake or tsunami, the region experienced severe storms, cross-border floods and landslides, which accounted for 85 percent of all disasters … Approximately 79.6 million people were affected by natural disasters across the region.” (UN Report: 2014 Asia and Pacific region floods cost $16bn, FloodList, 26 February 2015)

Similarly, whilst Britain was being flooded, the story was the same all the way in far-off Uruguay, where 23,000 people were displaced as the Rivers Uruguay and Cuareim overflowed. There were similar floods in neighbouring Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay’s River Asunción reached five metres above normal levels for the time of year. In Brazil, over 9,000 people were evacuated.

In the United States, there was flooding in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, with 19 deaths recorded, whilst 20 inches of snow fell in New Mexico. (See Severe weather across USA leaves over 40 dead, FloodList, 28 December 2015)

In the Philippines, a “state of national calamity” was declared by the government. Storms killed over 40 people, and three quarters of a million were evacuated. (Death toll rises in storm-hit Philippines, FloodList, 21 December 2015)

Also in the month of December, storms hit Ireland, Indonesia, South Africa, Malaysia, Congo, Mexico, Australia, Sri Lanka and Peru. Record rainfall was recorded in Norway.

Such events show that we are not alone. There can be no isolated national solutions to global warming. However, we must demand that national governments act on the issue of defences and adaptation.

In regard to tackling global warming, the solution can only be collective. There is limited value in one country becoming green while imperialism continues to burn the globe. As COP21 showed, imperialism is ill equipped to tackle the issue.

The fact is that while there is profit in pollution, the bourgeoisie will continue to pollute. Capitalist competition and inter-imperialist rivalry together render a bourgeois solution impossible. Only socialism therefore, offers the path to a green (and red) future. Only by overthrowing the exploiters, who are also the primary polluters, can we collectively solve the threat to our children’s future.

The bourgeoisie is busy fiddling whilst Rome burns. If a fraction of the estimated £5bn damage in Britain had been the result of terrorism, we can be certain there would be no such inaction. Had all of the deaths and evacuations been caused by some medieval fundamentalists, then the bourgeois media and imperialist governments would never stop talking about the tragic loss of life, and the drums would be banging for yet another imperialist war.

When the damage is caused by their bosses’ historic pollution, however, cities like Leeds and York are thrown some retrospective crumbs from the government and left to get on with cleaning up the mess. The career politicians of the bourgeois parties are far too preoccupied with the Westminster Punch and Judy show to bother even trying to help put out the fire.