California is currently experiencing the third straight year of below-average rainfall, causing the state to enter into a severe state of drought. The lack of rainfall decimates harvests and infringes on the ability of local authorities to reliably provide basic amenities such as drinking water. Simultaneously happening on the other side of the world, following months of severe storms that have flooded thousands of homes and drenched vast amounts of farmland, the United Kingdom is experiencing the wettest winter on record. Governmental response has so far focused on relieving those who have been directly affected by the weather, which does nothing to help the communities if a similar weather pattern occurs in the future. There needs to be a greater focus on what is causing these events and why the human impacts are so devastatingly widespread.
Following the driest year on record, which left nearly two-thirds of the state in an extreme drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency on Jan. 17, followed by a $687 million comprehensive proposal of relief funds on Feb. 19. The plan includes provisions for emergency food and housing for those
whose jobs have been lost due to the drought, as well as funds to
provide drinking water and improve irrigation. Yet nowhere in the plan does it suggest implementing some form of water conservation program to encourage residents and businesses to stop wasting water when maintaining swimming pools or cultivating gardens.
Brown has been asking for a voluntary reduction in water usage, but people are unwilling to forgo their luxuries. For water conservation to have any success, mandatory water restrictions need to be put in place. There is precedent of such a tactic working elsewhere; hosepipe bans are, somewhat ironically, a tried and tested way of conserving water during particularly dry years in the U.K. Strict restrictions on water consumption should be put in place in order to avoid the necessity of paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in relief funds in the future.
While addressing a water crisis, the U.K. government is preoccupied with announcing tax breaks and grant schemes for those forced from their homes during the flooding, instead of dealing with the reasons behind such a sustained problem in the first place. With more than 5,000 homes and businesses flooded and no end to the wet weather in sight, it has become the political priority to placate the thousands of voters affected by the flood before the general election next year.
As a result, members of the government actively avoid considering some physical factors that have exacerbated the situation, such as the refusal to dredge rivers early in the season. They also lay blame to actions taken when the opposition were in power, such as allowing building on floodplains. Most floodplain areas are protected against development due to flooding concerns, but about 13 percent of all developments are still planned in areas with high risk of floods. In order to avoid the catastrophe the viability of some buildings currently on the plains should be reconsidered.
There are also problems with inadequate sea and flood defenses. The Thames Barrier, a large flood defense protecting central London from tidal surges and flooding, built for the modern day equivalent of $2.6 billion of tax payers money, has been raised 40 times so far this year. Since becoming operational in 1983 the barrier has been raised a total 166 times. These statistics are staggering and raise questions about the effectiveness of the barrier and the availability of alternatives to prevent a devastating flood of the capital. The reasons behind such high water levels and ways to protect and prevent such extreme weather patterns must be considered, not just the homes of a few thousand members of the voting public.
At a time when natural resources are running short, policy makers need to consider ways in which resources can be preserved and reassess their lifestyle in terms of sustainability. It is unknown if these weather patterns represent a trend that will plague the Northern Hemisphere for years to come, but the possibility must be considered by policy makers and provisions must be made. Neither California nor the U.K. can survive many more years if this weather pattern persists. The focus for legislators is currently on the short term, on visibly being concerned for the voting public, rather than considering the long term implications for future generations. This may not be an ongoing trend, but it is necessary to start asking questions. The “why” should not be forgotten even after the communities devastated by this season have recovered.
Charlotte Flight is a junior Media Arts and Culture major. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @WklyCFlight.