Sussex floods

20th October 2000 at 01:00
(Photograph) - The name of the river seems somehow appropriate. The River Uck burst its banks after an astonishing six inches of rain in just 12 hours, turning the quiet East Sussex town of Uckfield into a mucky brown flood plain.

Aerial photographs of the stricken town, its industrial estates, homes and abandoned cars awash in a tide of filthy water, made national news as much of southern England was last week hit by the worst flooding in decades.

Lifeboat crews rescued stranded homeowners; a shopkeeper was swept away by fast-flowing water and had to be pulled to safety by coastguards; health warnings were issued after children were seen eating chocolate bars which had floated out of a shop.

In the nearby historic town of Lewes, residents were evacuated to sleep in the town hall, their homes under several feet of water after the River Ouse burst its banks. There were similar stories in neighbouring Kent, where high tides and torrential rain filled the Medway to bursting point.

It seems we're going to have to get used to scenes like this as Britain becomes a flooding trouble spot. In June, floods hit Yorkshire and County Durham. In September it was Hampshire's turn, when homes in the seaside suburb of Southsea were hit by a five-foot tide of sewage.

In this country, flooding is now on average nearly twice as frequent as it was a century ago. And over the next 100 years we could see up to a ten-fold increase in flood risk.

The cost is huge. In the past two years, 25 people have died as a result of flooding in England and Wales. Five million people live in low-lying areas at risk of flooding, while property and land at risk are valued at pound;214 billion. <> The Environment Agency has advised against any new development in low-lying, flood-prone areas. "We can't tame nature," says the agency, almost philosophically. "Floods will happen."

What of the bigger picture? In recent months the effects of extreme weather have ranged from severe floods in Bangladesh and Japan, to raging fires in the United States and Italy. Is this climate change occurring naturally, or are we to blame?

According to a study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature, we are experiencing the first effects of global warming because of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The report gloomily forecasts more dramatic changes if concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to increase - a further rise of the mean global temperature, more extreme rainstorms, a substantial rise in sea levels and changing patterns of ocean-atmosphere circulation.

World leaders next month gather for a climate summit in The Hague, to decide how to meet targets to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Yet, warns Friends of the Earth, many nations - particularly the United States - are refusing to face up to the climate change. And even in Europe, we're still more concerned about high fuel prices than cutting CO2 emissions.

As the people of Kent and East Sussex count the cost of the flood damage, suddenly Britain's preoccupation with the weather seems highly justified.

Websites Environment Agency: Met Office: Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate Ark (news and information on climate change): Martin Whittaker

Photograph by Dan Charity

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