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Waves of destruction
Rising seas are changing
Britain's coast dramatically.
Norfolk is the first
to face a stark and cruel new choice
- plough millions into
or abandon whole villages to the invading waters.
Thursday April 17 2008
This article appeared in the Guardian
on Thursday April 17 2008
on p4 of the
Comment & features section.
It was last updated at 02:31 on April 17 2008.
It was the latest in a series of catastrophic floods. Seawater forced its way
through sand dunes and spilled miles across the low-lying lands of north-east
Norfolk, spoiling farmland and destroying homes. After this flood of 1622, it
was proposed that the sea be allowed in for good, as far as the village of
Potter Heigham, five miles from the coast. Local people and landowners were
horrified. They vowed to defend their livelihoods. Two thousand men were
press-ganged into repairing the dunes and repelling "the extordinaire force and
rage of the Sea".
The strategy worked and the waves were turned away from this corner of Norfolk
for nearly 400 years. Last month, however, a new plan, closely resembling the
retreat first proposed in the 17th century, was leaked to the public. Calling
for "the embayment" of 25 square miles of low-lying land, the government's
environmental body, Natural England, said that nine miles of sea defences
between the seaside villages of Eccles and Winterton were unsustainable "beyond
the next 20-50 years", creating the possibility of "realigning the coast". What
this cold academic language actually means is wiping part of Norfolk off the
map: 600 homes, six villages, five medieval churches, four fresh-water Broadland
lakes, historic windmills, precious nature reserves and valuable agricultural
land would be given up to the rising seas. Britain would have its first climate
Outrage has greeted this "secret" plan. Residents complain of an instant
property blight on their apparently doomed homes. Farmers speak out against the
needless destruction of agricultural land. Politicians point out that no one has
been consulted. Conservationists protest at the loss of unique flora and fauna
and almost an eighth of the unique Broads national park. But the scientific
community is unrepentant. They fear that, unlike in the 17th century, community
spirit and construction of new barricades will no longer be enough to hold back
More than 15 million people live close to Britain's coastline. This small corner
of Norfolk is the first to confront what every low-lying community in the
country will face in the coming decades: the real cost of increased erosion,
storms and sea-level rises exacerbated by global warming. It presents local
people and the government with a stark dilemma. Is it worth spending billions on
defending homes and livelihoods? Or, faced with inexorable sea-level rise,
should expensive coastal defences be abandoned, leading to the evacuation of
land and houses?
It is not just old pillboxes from the second world war that make the clifftops
at Happisburgh, in Norfolk, resemble a battle scene. The land looks as if it has
been bombed by the sea. Neat furrows of winter wheat end abruptly at the cliff
edge: this erosion is happening so fast that crops planted last autumn to be
harvested this summer have already been lost to the sea. A concrete ramp that
once took the lifeboat down the cliff lies in twisted ruins. Dilapidated houses
are being deserted as their gardens flop into the sea. On the beach, twists of
exposed metal lie across fragments of smashed wooden sea defences and newer
boulders lobbed there by the council.
To the south, the defences have been allowed to disappear completely from a
half-mile stretch of beach. Here is compelling evidence of what happens when sea
defences are abandoned: the sea has blasted a new bay out of farmland and, in
less than a decade, marched several hundred metres inland. The authorities have
a name for what is happening here in Happisburgh: "managed retreat". It does not
look very orderly.
The Norfolk Broads begin on ominously low land a couple of miles south of
Happisburgh. They were originally estuary, but since Saxon times have been
steadily drained and reclaimed as grazing marsh. Its freshwater lakes were
mostly created by peat digging, and for centuries its waterways have been
managed by windmills, water pumps and dykes, often based on Dutch engineering.
This land has always lived with the water, although one inland village,
Hickling, which would be sacrificed to the sea under the new proposals, lost 108
people when it was swamped by sea water in 1287. Dramatic floods returned in
1938 and again in 1953, when a sea surge killed 307 people. This disaster
triggered a "never again" attitude and the construction of miles of concrete sea
defences to protect the east coast. These are now crumbling.
One Happisburgh resident, Malcolm Kerby, has formed an action group to protect
coastal communities. He calls the principle of managed retreat "the government's
'chuck it all away today' philosophy".
"We're not stupid. We know we live on a coast that's been eroding for thousands
of years. We know we will never stop the sea," he says. But he points to where
the wooden defences remain shakily intact and then the spectacular erosion
behind the section where they have disappeared. "What is demonstrated here so
clearly is that for a relatively low cost you can reduce the rate of erosion to
a manageable level."
The rhetoric of the government and its agencies, however, appears to doubt that.
"I think the Norfolk Broads will go. They will definitely salinate," Lady Young,
chief executive of the Environment Agency (EA) - responsible for defending
Britain's coastline - told a recent climate change conference. Hilary Benn, the
environment secretary, has warned that tough choices will need to be made along
Britain's coast. "It's very difficult for people living there; for farmers, for
communities," Benn has said. "It's partly about how much money we're prepared to
spend, but it's also about what nature in the end makes happen."
The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has nearly
doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management from 10 years ago
to an estimated £600m in 2007-08 and will invest £2.15bn in the next three
years. But land is already being abandoned to the sea. The EA says it will not
fund long-term defences of the Blyth estuary on the Suffolk coast, leaving local
volunteers to rebuild flood barriers. Managed retreat is already happening on a
smaller scale at a number of locations including Cley, a bird-watching mecca on
the north Norfolk coast, where a protective shingle bank is being allowed to
fall into disrepair, leaving the sea to form new salt marshes behind it.
The EA has a policy of "holding the line" for the next 50 years to protect this
part of Norfolk. Even then, it will cost between £1.5 and £2m a year just to
maintain the nine miles of sea defences between Eccles and Winterton, which
protect the 25 square miles that could be flooded. "In economic terms it's well
justified," says Steve Hayman, EA coastal manager for East Anglia - but probably
not beyond 50 years. "In the longer term there are really difficult questions to
answer here and it may not be possible to maintain the coastline as we know it
The proposals to sacrifice this chunk of Norfolk were first mooted in
environmental circles five years ago. Although they were leaked last month,
Natural England clearly wanted them to be published. "By selecting a radical
option now, the right message about the scale and severity of the impacts of
climate change is delivered to the public," its document said. As well as
catastrophic coastal erosion, it predicted "strong political resistance". It has
been proved right.
In the affluent, attractive village of Hickling, local residents fear thousands
have been knocked off the value of their homes. "It puts a blight on the area,"
says Harry Purnell, vice-chairman of the parish council. "It's not as if we're
going to flood next week." Yvonne Pugh, who runs a B&B in a £700,000 house,
says, "The idea of building a sea wall behind us and letting us go to ruin is
not nice. What's it going to do for house prices?" Her husband, John, a retired
chartered surveyor, says homes in the area are worth £2bn in total; farmers
believe land lost would be worth £500m.
In Happisburgh, where erosion is so brutally evident, there is already a blight
on houses. Locals claim prices are up to 30% lower than in unthreatened coastal
villages. Mark Bradley, 46, lives on Beach Road. It would be worth £200,000 but
after two decades of erosion, Beach Road is almost on the beach. When he bought
it 23 years ago, he believed the government would continue to defend the
coastline. Now, living in a house he can't sell and which may not be standing in
a decade, he feels his life is ruined. "I went through a stage when I checked
the cliffs every day. I got very upset and very depressed. You feel like a
goldfish in a bowl when people come to gawp," he says. "Last year, when the new
rocks were put on the beach [as a temporary sea defence], I decorated for the
first time in 10 years. Previously I didn't have the heart to spend £100 on
wallpaper because you don't know how long you're going to enjoy it for."
It is not just homeowners who are in shock. While local environmental groups
such as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust have spoken hopefully of valuable new salt
water habitats if this part of the Broads is submerged, many conservationists
argue that we must preserve the unique freshwater nature reserves at Hickling
and Horsey. "The whole future of the Broads is at stake. We can't possibly just
'let nature take its course'," says Martin George, an ecologist and former
chairman of the Broads Society. "It's diverse and very species-rich, with a lot
of very rare species. I am apprehensive that some of the naturalist groups are
inclined to say how wonderful it will be to have all these new [salt marsh]
habitats for birds. I disagree fundamentally. We need to do what we can to save
what's there now. But I'm realistic enough to say we may not be able to do that
for longer than 20 to 50 years."
George argues that the Broads should be saved for as long as they can be. "A
country that has the technological know-how to extract oil and gas from below
the North Sea and convey it in pipes to the mainland should surely be capable of
finding a way to protect a concrete sea wall against the effects of climate
change," he says. "We should accept that ultimately we will get drowned, but to
let all these insects and land and communities go into the sea is simply not
acceptable. Philosophically, as a conservationist, I believe we should do our
damnedest to safeguard our heritage for as long as humanly possible."
Most climate and environmental scientists, however, predict that this corner of
the Broads may not last long. "It is very vulnerable. It could go next winter or
we might be lucky and several decades pass," says Brian Moss, professor of
botany at Liverpool University, who has studied the Broads for 35 years. "Do you
wait for it to happen and have another 1953 with potentially a lot of people
killed, or say the risk is so high that it goes back to an estuary, you pay
compensation and move people out before flooding it? That's the controversial
David Viner, Natural England's leading climate change specialist, explains that
the plan was a draft series of "scenarios". Defending the coastline has not been
ruled out and he insists that it backs the EA's pledge to "hold the line" in
Norfolk for the next 50 years. But he says Natural England is showing "good
leadership in facing up to the challenges of climate change. It is irresponsible
to put your head in the sand and say nothing is happening." Hickling Broad won't
survive another 100 years, he says. Even if it is protected with new sea walls,
saline intrusion from rising sea levels will irrevocably transform the Broads
from a freshwater region into a salty one. Some freshwater species will become
extinct in Broadland. "We will have to look at recreating Hickling and the
communities around Hickling somewhere else," he says.
While Natural England's plan does not rule out alternative options, such as
building new sea defences, many environmental scientists argue against "hard"
defences, and not just on the grounds of cost. Research shows that big sea
defences can cause as many problems as they solve, stopping the transfer of sand
along the coast and causing erosion elsewhere. New defences in north-east
Norfolk could increase erosion at Great Yarmouth, which is equally vulnerable to
sea-level rise, warns Moss.
As coastal residents become aware that they may outlive their homes, the
government faces a huge new dilemma. Malcolm Kerby says that people should be
compensated for the loss of their homes to the sea, just as they are if houses
are given up for motorways or airports. Here, however, the government is
sheltering behind an obscure 1949 law that absolves it of responsibility for
homes lost to the sea. The government still won't contemplate the question of
compensating our climate change refugees of the future. "We do not offer
compensation, in line with previous governments," says a Defra spokeswoman. She
says Defra does not intend to examine whether it will in the future. "We are
developing a toolkit to help communities adapt to the fact that the coastline is
changing, where we cannot get in the way of natural processes - but that's not
Kerby argues that it is discriminatory to protect some people from rising seas
and rivers and not others, so London is saved by its expensive Thames Barrier
but tiny Happisburgh is not. The vast bulk of the government's spending on flood
defence goes on non-coastal areas, protecting towns and cities from river
floods. Defra has asked the EA to ensure that a minimum of £110m - just 5% of
its £2.15bn three-year flood defence spend - is reserved for projects by coastal
local authorities. "Officials say leave it to natural processes. By all means,
remove all the sea defences down the east coast including the Thames Barrier and
I'll take my chances with the rest of them, but they are singling us out," says
This battle for our future climate change refugees is only just beginning. For
some, however, fighting the sea is a familiar story. John Buxton has lived on
the Broads for 76 years. His father bought Horsey Hall in 1929, later donating
his land to the National Trust. Buxton still helps look after this rich habitat
and vividly remembers the flood of 1938, which turned his home into an island.
Salt water covered thousands of acres - a disaster for farmers if it could not
be removed. There was no question of giving it up to the sea, though: his father
travelled to Holland for advice on how to recover the land.
Buxton, and many other locals, feel they should do the same today. Buxton
believes that Dutch sea defences - with a slow, gradual slope - are far more
effective than the wall-style defences that now protect the Norfolk coast.
"I see it as my responsibility to maintain this land. I'm not King Neptune. I
can't keep the sea out, but I can advise on ways of managing the land," he says.
"It works, the way we do it. There has always been this danger about the sea
coming in but to allow it to do so, or encourage it to come in, is complete
nonsense and shows utter ignorance and disdain for what has happened up until
now. Taking care of this land has been a life's work. Giving it up would be a
waste of my lifetime's efforts".
· There is a gallery to accompany Patrick Barkham's piece: guardian.co.uk/g2 >
Waves of destruction, G,
From the Archive
The Broken Levee System
May 4, 2001
Republished June 22, 2008
By CHRISTOPHER HALLOWELL
Every week, the Opinion section presents an essay from The
Times's archive by a columnist or contributor that we hope sheds light on
current news or provides a window on the past.
The best way to handle the Mississippi's floods, Christopher Hallowell wrote in
2001, isn't by building levees and walls, but by letting the excess water take
its natural course.
Letting the River Run
May 4, 2001
The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER HALLOWELL
The Bush administration has scolded the city of Davenport, Iowa, for its
failure to build a permanent flood wall to protect itself from the swollen
Mississippi River. But as the administration, through the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, appears to advocate lining the river with levees and flood
walls, it should look downstream to Louisiana, which has come to its own
solution, for better or worse, about how to handle its end of the Mississippi.
After a disastrous flood in 1927 killed hundreds of people, most in New Orleans,
Louisiana built several gated spillways north of the city that allow the river
to overflow its banks and dissipate over natural flood plains or swamps.
These spillways require that large swaths of land remain open and undeveloped
(all are popular fishing, hunting and recreational havens during low-water
periods), but they have saved the city and the petrochemical complexes between
New Orleans and Baton Rouge from severe flooding any number of times. And where
there are no spillways, the river is lined with levees and flood walls that
protect the sprawl of housing subdivisions, malls and industrial buildings that
continue to accumulate in ever thicker density.
The combination of spillways, levees and flood walls has worked. But there is
still a problem south of New Orleans, where there are no spillways. Here, the
river is permanently enclosed behind levees or flood walls almost all the way to
the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of some 80 miles.
Before these levees were built, floods would send tons of sediment and nutrients
over the wetlands year after year, building and supporting a bonanza of natural
wealth. These three million acres -- a quarter of the country's coastal wetlands
-- are a nursery for much of the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. They also
protect low-lying coastal communities -- and New Orleans, too -- from hurricanes
by acting as buffers against storm surges and by absorbing high water.
The leveed river can no longer provide sediment and nutrients. As a result, the
wetlands that spread from its banks are dying; some 16,000 acres a year vanish
as the coast sinks and erosion chews away at the weakened roots of plants.
Livelihoods are threatened because the wetlands no longer nurture fish, shrimp
and oysters. As the fishing economy wobbles, a culture of bayou life, with large
families living off the land, begins to die.
Louisiana is trying to stop the land from disappearing, recognizing that the
only way to save the coast is to allow the Mississippi River into the wetlands.
It uses what the Army Corps of Engineers calls ''freshwater diversions.''
Downstream from New Orleans, huge pipes arching over the levees pump water into
the devastated marsh. In Caernarvon, 15 miles south of New Orleans, a levee has
been cut to provide room for an elaborate gate that permits the Mississippi's
water to pass in limited quantities into the dying marsh. Hundreds of acres of
wetlands have been restored through these means -- which are really no more than
meager imitations of nature's inclinations. These freshwater diversions are also
expensive and controversial, because they destroy oyster beds, upsetting the
powerful seafood industry.
Before it pushes for continuous levees along the Mississippi, the Bush
administration should consider the lessons of Louisiana. Flood plains serve a
crucial purpose, and when a river as prodigious as the Mississippi is denied a
place to send its excesses, the land itself, and the people who depend on it,
suffer in the long run.
Christopher Hallowell is the author of the forthcoming
''Holding Back the Sea:
The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast.''
Letting the River Run,
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