Monday, 30 July 2007

A Few More Water Thoughts ... And Some History

By Martin Spray

Whether down in the water or up on the hill, we’ll all have to pay for whatever comes after the floods. I hope it will be assumed that this summer is not a one-off event and that we act accordingly. Some actions are relatively simple. Water butts built in as a matter of routine is a good example – and not just to collect water for the garden. Thought needs to be given to grey-water storage as well. There are plenty of ideas around at this small scale – some, for instance, came under the heading of permaculture. Not that all could easily be translated into a city context. And this still leaves the big question: what to do about global warming, whatever might be the cause?

Yes, water is quite heavy ... but surprisingly cheap. I can’t remember how much I pay for water. We have a piped supply in, but soakaways, storage tanks and a septic tank, and so a small bill. It would still be small if I constructed a waterfall in the garden and ran tapwater over it all day and every day of the year. As a society, we have a very basic and huge problem here: the change we need to make to our attitudes to, and the way we value, such ‘resources’ as water is a revolutionary one. Conservationists are as reluctant as anyone to face that. Mea culpa. And mea culpa is what most worries me and leads to thoughts about catastrophe theory.

I suppose age is making me a bit impatient. I want new forests, with big herbivores and a few top carnivores, and I want them now. I can see that there are lots of positive things happening out there (including the start of new forests) but, in conformity with human nature, we really aren’t yet facing the big issues. Of course things take time ... but I am persistently and increasingly aware of saying, and of hearing, the same things as thirty, forty years ago. It’s as if (as they say) only the names have been changed.

And finally ...

I am not sure that one can take heart from them, but here are a few fairly random historical comparisons with the recent weather in Britain. They are dippings into J.M. Stratton’s Agricultural Records A.D. 220 – 1977.

Between June 29th and August 15th rain fell on 47 days, and every day but one in July was wet. Only once in the summer did the temperature rise to 76F.

Almost continuous rain fell from the beginning of April to early July. “All low meadows in the kingdom floated ... The damage done almost incredible. In three days five inches of rain fell”.

An excessively wet summer, with almost continuous rain from mid-summer to Christmas. Serious floods followed, and much of the harvest was not gathered. The Black Death caused very heavy mortality.

On June 24th a tremendous storm caused flooding and much damage to cornfields in the west of England ... Owing to almost continuous rains, the harvest was very late, some of it not being gathered until November 1st. Many people in England died of famine this year.

A year of storm and rain, with much consequent disease. This began a series of famine years which lasted until 1066.


Sunday, 29 July 2007

Bowsers, butts, buckets & bottles

By Rick Minter

Martin suggests the gentleman (actually my dad) might be filling his watering can for the garden. Sorry to appear defensive, but all our buckets and containers were already pressed into action catching water alongside the water butts. I'm puzzled at the lack of water butts among my neighbours - why not harness the bountiful precipitation gushing over your roof? Water butts are cheap, effective, low-tech devices and perhaps should come as standard with new homes, as a condition of planning.

Without mains water, it's things like the washing-up that are the challenge: grey water isn't up to it and the bottled stuff seems too precious for the dishes, so hair-washing and the crockery are the main candidates for bowser water in my household. Oh, and like most of the water-deprived Gloucestershire residents, I smell of wet wipes at present. They're a neat way of washing with no, or minimal, water and I feel less guilty having found a supply of biodegradable wipes in Waitrose.

Incidentally, a week ago I'd not heard the word bowser and assumed it was a breed of dog when it was first mentioned. Now it's in common daily use across Gloucestershire and in the media.

There are two lessons I've learnt with the water management this week. Both are simple and obvious, but sink in only at the moment they become real. First, water is heavy stuff. It's tiring to cart water around in buckets and bottles, and I'm glad I don't have that many stairs to negotiate or a baby in the household to magnify the water needs. Of course, carrying water is a daily routine for millions of people elsewhere in the world - aren't we a bunch of softies? The second lesson is how time consuming it all is. I reckon it adds a couple of hours to the daily chores to use water from bowsers, butts, buckets and bottles. Washing up - we do it once at the end of the day to be frugal - takes an age, as do most other mundane functions of rinsing and washing.

Finally, to continue nit-picking Martin's comments, the New Midlands Forest certainly did happen, as the New National Forest (we obviously haven't given it sufficient attention in ECOS), and as for those "puny pumas" we get in Gloucestershire, well, they'll have moved to higher ground as the water rose, meaning even more big cats will be at your door in the Forest, Martin (they prefer deer, rabbits and the odd pet anyway).

Back to the buckets ...

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Thoughts on the Floods

By Martin Spray.

Is the gentleman by the bowser about to fill a watering-can? But his garden’s awash! (Of course I’m smug. I’m only a few miles away, but have a 650-feet advantage over the Plaindwellers.)

It may not be PC to say so, but the events of the past few weeks (aka summer) confirm my fear that catastrophe theory is valid. Only by facing extreme conditions do we begin to accept that the views of "weirdoes" and "extremists" might have some validity. Only when peering into the Abyss do we agree that it was silly to rush towards it. Flood-plains are flood-plains are flood-plains. If you live on one, expect floods.

If water can’t go where it wants to go, it will go somewhere else ... or somewhere else. Maybe that should be in the National Curriculum. We shall soon see that ‘natural hazard’ control is like the NHS: there are many great things we can do - but we can’t afford to do them all - and some things we can't (as yet) do. It seems highly unlikely that we can stop it (or start it) raining, or stop the rivers rising. Cnut demonstrated something similar. It’s said that, in 2205 BC, the great waterway engineer Yu reported: “O Sovereign, the Earth has been reduced to order ... and the treasuries of Nature ... are all truly regulated, and may be depended on for ten thousand generations". He was wrong.

What we humans can do - and are quite good at - is live ‘with’ this thing we call Nature. But it involves backing off a bit. We can live on flood-plains, but it might need houses to be built on stilts, or with easily-evacuated basements, or, indeed, to be floatable (but not necessarily houseboats). It would certainly require the acceptance of greater diversity rather than driving for uniformity – in housing, farming, transport, lifestyle. Easy to say, of course, but if you don’t think much of the status quo then it seems reasonable to say it.

Continuing the (apparent) silliness: I remember being taken by the idea of a ‘New Midlands Forest’. I still think it would be a good idea. We should have gone ahead with it. But I wondered why we weren’t also hearing, for instance, about the New Midlands Bog. Or the New Severn Swamp ... perhaps more enticingly named the Severn Everglades (the Severnglades, even)? It would relieve us of the need to deny geography. It would allow whole communities and economies to develop with a wetland ecology. At the shallower end of 'Ecology', it would offer tremendous recreation opportunities. At the Deep End ... well, what a chance for re-wilding! And with global warming, forget puny pumas. Think alligators!

The Pludds (it means something like 'muddy patch'), Forest of Dean

Friday, 27 July 2007

Business As Usual for ECOS Printer, Severnprint

Loss of power and water in Gloucester on Monday 23rd July, caused by the exceptional flooding in the city, forced ECOS's printer, Severnprint, to close for the day, but a combination of technical innovation, improvised plumbing and the Dunkirk spirit enabled the company quickly to open its doors for business again on the following day, despite the ongoing crisis.

For BANC members and ECOS subscribers, this means that the publication of the upcoming ECOS issue, Vol. 28, No. 2, will proceed on schedule during August.

David Pealing of Severnprint explained to Rick Minter, ECOS editor:

"We recently switched to 'processless plates'. This eliminated our previously largest use of water and so we are working normally, illustrating the benefit of using as few resources as possible. However, without electricity we couldn't work on Monday.

"Our lavatories are working with water that we ship in from outside in our cars and vans. We have rigged up a 12-volt caravan pump which pressurises the cold water system, so we can use the lavatories and cold water sparingly, which is legal!

"So if you have the next ECOS ready, please bring it on!".

For more info and pictures, see

July 2007 Floods in Gloucestershire

Photos and comments by Rick Minter

Residents using a water bowser just yards away from the ECOS office in Gloucestershire in July 2007. The River Severn floodwater contaminated a water treatment plant, affecting water supplies in and around Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester, with residents and businesses relying on the distribution of bottled water and bowsers. Many water bowsers in Gloucestershire have been subject to irresponsible use, but residents at this one photographed have remarked how it's like having a village pump meeting place.

One of the benefits of the floods and water crisis has been the emergence of a strong community spirit, and one of the challenges will be to cope with the mass use of plastic bottles, with over one million due to be disposed of in coming days and weeks. People are already debating how they can be re-used and recycled, and pressing the authorities for direction on this.
The night the rains came to Gloucestershire. The Hatherley Brook spills its banks and floods the neighbouring golf course.

This photo was taken at 6:30pm. It is unenhanced, to give an impression of the darkness of an early evening in July!

The River Avon in spectacular flood at the Gloucestershire-Worcestershire border.

The following photos were taken just a mile from the ECOS office, a few days after the main event when the water level had subsided!