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Do we respond to natural hazards in the right way?

Natural hazards are something that affect almost everyone on the planet, to some degree. Some areas of the world are more disaster prone than others such as Japan, which is a country that sits on several very active plate boundaries and so is at higher risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but is also at risk of tsunamis as we saw in 2011, due to being very much a coastal nation. Other areas, like the UK, have less variety of hazards to affect us, yet are plagued by one hazard in particular: floods. The UK’s responses to flooding have improved over the course of time due it having many opportunities to improve its defences. However, despite all this I do not think that enough is being done to mitigate against some hazards and in most cases I think it is more of a case of the small details that need big improvements rather than the large-scale projects that occur to mitigate against natural hazards.

Many villages were cut off by flooded roads on the Somerset levels (photo credit: westernmorningnews.co.uk)

If I go back to the example of the UK’s flooding issue, the floods of 2013/14 that majorly affected the Somerset levels have been at the centre of a debate as to how to prevent a disaster on such a scale from happening again. The UK government recently announced a 20 year flood action plan for Somerset which will involve making £20million available to be put towards projects that will hopefully reduce the magnitude of flooding, should an event like that of 2013/14 happen again. Projects included are tidal barrages across the River Parrett, increased amounts of dredging, and raising the levels of roads to stop towns and villages from being cut off for weeks on end. However, there are two main problems with this: firstly, the £20milion is not going to get anywhere near covering the cost of what needs to be done to repair damage and protect the area as that total cost is £100million; the tidal barrage will cost £30million alone! Secondly, this is only a 20 year plan and the likelihood of their being several major floods in the Somerset levels will go beyond 20 years from now. Of course, the short-term responses to a hazard are important as problems have to be fixed in order to move forward, but with climate change making it more likely that floods like these will happen again and more frequently; a more long-term plan should be considered at least. The Somerset levels are in a vulnerable position anyway without the influence of climate change; they are sitting on land that has been reclaimed from its original state as boggy marshland over the last centuries, much of which is only a few meters above sea level. With this in mind I think that there should be a restriction placed over the most vulnerable areas of the Somerset levels that prevents future development there, especially that in the form of residential housing. In the long run, it is unlikely that we will be able to stop the Somerset levels being  flooded frequently or even reclaimed by the waters once again, but the least we can do is to stop anymore people being put at risk from these floods. It is a thought that must be taken into consideration. However, the UK needs more housing and so the chances of this occurring in the near future I think is low.

The rail line at Dawlish as a result of the winter storms of 2013/14 (photo credit: itv.com)

The Maldives are already at high risk of loosing their islands due to sea level rise (photo credit: nationalgeographic.com)

Furthermore, in a lot of cases, fighting a natural hazard is often like fighting a loosing battle. Many natural hazards either affect such large areas that it is impossible to protect everywhere or the frequency of the hazard is too high to mitigate against each event. Therefore sometimes the only realistic option for hazard mitigation is to sacrifice some areas in favour of others. Coastal erosion and sea level rise is a good example of this. Low lying countries such as the Maldives that are only a few metres above sea level at best, are continuing to struggle to prevent their islands from being lost to the rising sea levels and as sea levels globally are predicted to increase by 26-59cm over the next few centuries, and when it comes to places like the Maldives, there is little that can be done to stop the islands being lost to this rate of sea level rise. Coastal erosion around the UK is also becoming a major issue. the 2013/14 storms that hit the UK caused damage via floods inland, but also through damage to the coast as a result of several severe storms that left many coastal towns and villages highly damaged. The South West saw damage to harbour walls, buildings and boats as well as rapid rates of coastal erosion. There was also major damage to transport links as the main railway line that connects Cornwall to the rest of the country was cut off at Dawlish following a major storm that undermined the rail line. The line was repaired and open for the summer tourist season at a cost of £35 million, but with the likelihood of more similar storms in the future increasing, then repairs like these cannot be the solution every time a storm occurs. For this reason there are plans to divert the route away from the coast at Dawlish and through the Devon-shire countryside instead and to me this seems the right way to go about protecting the rail line and the Cornish economy from more damage from more storms, it seems like a good long-term solution and I hope that it one day happens.

Natural hazards have to be understood as things that we cannot completely control. Our efforts to reduce the damage vary depending on the type of hazard and where this hazard takes place, among many other factors. Sometimes we cannot prevent natural hazards from causing damage and so we have to work with them, either through retreat or through planning ahead for the long-term.

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