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  • Writer's pictureJosh Oldridge

South Yorkshire Floods

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

It’s a long old train journey back home to East Yorkshire from Cornwall, especially only for a brief trip. Things which make it more bearable: the fact I saved £40 on the ticket by using ticket-splitting (if you don’t know about it, get on it!, two squashed cheese and tomato sandwiches, and, above all, the scenery en route – particularly the section brushing along the South Devon coast with its red cliffs, sea stacks off the shoreline, and beautiful and often massive houses in and overlooking the many tree-lined inlets and estuaries. The weather was sunny – the sky mostly clear – with only high, wispy clouds in amazing patterns, and I was going to my sister’s 21st, so heading back was a must and something I was looking forward to.

But the view became uncomfortable after Birmingham – around Tamworth and on the approach to Chesterfield and Sheffield. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather back home and reading some of the articles about the floods which had struck just the week before, but it’s not the most pleasant read, and horrible to witness. The usual romantic woodland, rivers, and agricultural land was interrupted by burst banks and field-flooding. And this was nearly a full week after the worst of the weather. And then, on the approach to Rotherham, something crazy happened: it started to rain.

The devastation caused by the floods has prompted public debate. I don’t want to make this post overly political or economic – the truth is I don’t have enough in-depth knowledge about the ins and outs of flood management, expenses, and viability for that – but it certainly appears that flood defences for villages and farmland have been neglected in favour of protecting towns and cities. It’s a bit like an offshoot of a classic ethical dilemma, the trolley problem, in which one person can be sacrificed to save five. Sheffield saw a massive flood defence project finished in 2018 after horrendous flooding caused two deaths in 2007, and this was largely successful in holding back the recent once-in-fifty-years downpours, despite some areas still suffering. As Liz Sharp from the University of Sheffield commented, this way of thinking is understandable – there are more people in cities and the negative economic effects are greater on businesses if the city is hit. To play devil's advocate, I do find it interesting that, with Brexit around the corner (of a possibly infinitely long bend), whereby one would expect us to rely more on our own food sources, the fields are sacrificed. And for residents of Fishlake, one of the villages further down than Sheffield and Doncaster along the River Don, which has taken collateral damage, this argument is irrelevant. Some homes are still underwater. The only real reprieve as far as I’ve seen is the promise that insurance will cover damages. Boris Johnson offered this partial reassurance in person when he visited neighbouring village Stainforth, also hit by the floods, where he was slammed by locals for not coming sooner and not taking enough prior action (link to video below).

A field near Fishlake.

It’s tricky, however, because climate change and our use of the land in the past has played a part. We've reshaped the countryside to meet our needs, and this has directly and indirectly helped to worsen the rains and the impact of them. The land no longer has the capacity to hold water like it used to. Professor Ian Rotherham of Sheffield Hallam University noted that, among other things including canalisation, burning and destroying peat bogs (which are carbon sinks to start with, so help to prevent the atmosphere warming) higher up in the valleys carved out by the Don, to make way for agricultural land and building developments, has meant rainwater gets into the river much easier. Some of the plants previously found in the bogs could hold up to twenty times their weight in water. Without them soaking up runoff, this excess rainwater pours straight into the river and into the valleys where villages and towns lay, because the simple fact is: with massive downpours, the extra water has to go somewhere, and policy-makers and people in positions of power have limited resources to try to deal with it. Added to this, the earth is now heating and air particles have the capacity to hold more moisture, meaning more frequent heavy downpours are expected. In a module on the maths behind climate change I took last year, there is irrefutable hard evidence that the earth is heating (how arguably the world’s most powerful man could deny this is … I have no words) and, importantly, since so many variables go into predicting aspects of the weather, it’s unclear how this will affect some world weather systems. Different models sometimes predict wildly different outcomes. Couple this with the rising sea level and the fact that the Humber estuary is surrounded by large residential areas stood in what is effectively a huge flood plain, and the flooding in South Yorkshire serves as a chilling, perhaps ominous look into the future. Many scientists say we cannot reverse our effects on the planet now, we can only limit them. We have to do this.

Best wishes go out to everyone affected by the floods.

If you want to donate to the flood appeal you can do so here:

This is a bad quality video I took on the Doncaster to Hull train. IT IS NOT A RIVER – it is a farmer's field. The river only comes into view in the final few seconds.

There are a number of articles on the South Yorkshire flooding, including many from the BBC. This is a really interesting one:

If you like seeing Boris Johnson sweat (not in a weird way):

For the interview with Professor Ian Rotherham (recommended):

Thanks for reading! All comments welcome.

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