Monday, 2 July 2007

Here Comes the Rain Again!

It has rained this week. You might feel that there is nothing unusual in that – Britain is known for its rain. It has, however, rained this week. We have been experiencing unduly heavy rain storms that have quite disrupted the northern parts of England (see story). With the rain came flooding and destruction (see story). And then it rained again (see story). There is much of the future wrapped up in this sequence of events.

First and foremost, there is the question of dramatic climate change. We believe that opinion on climate change has shifted slightly over recent months. In our view, it now seems to be taken as a given that climate change will occur, and the discussion has moved on to what we need to do about it. Much of the discussion has been around what to do in the long term – ways of adjusting our carbon footprint. Despite this, there is also the much nearer term to think about.

The tale of Ulley Reservoir may be a portent of things to come. This reservoir became so full of water that the fabric of the dam that retained the water started to give way. There was so much water in the reservoir that the engineering tolerance built into the dam was being exceeded. (See story). As we saw this story unfold, we wondered just how much reconstruction of the infrastructure would be needed to cope with dramatic climate change. In the last week, roads and bridges were washed away because their engineering tolerance had been exceeded.

If we, in the UK, are to preserve our infrastructure, then it seems to us that we are on the verge of a fairly major construction boom, as much of our infrastructure needs to be reinforced, if not replaced. This begs the question of how such a construction programme would be financed. It also begs the question of the supply of the building resources (the global market in building materials is still very tight), the supply of the human resource to do the work (we don’t have enough engineers in the UK, can we import them or train them ourselves?), and the supply of the management know-how for such a reconstruction.

We suspect that, very slowly and immeasurably, climate change is changing the nature of the insurance industry. Those poor souls flooded out in South Yorkshire will now be unable to obtain household insurance, if they were able to in the first instance. The question of how to compensate those who are victims of natural disasters – particularly if their plight is the result of public policy – is a political issue that may well climb the agenda in the next few years.

There was some upside to the week. When we compare the floods of South Yorkshire with the flooding of New Orleans a number of key differences are striking. It is interesting how easily the public services have been able to retain control of the situation. There has not been a repeat in South Yorkshire of the mayhem that was associated with the flooding of New Orleans. If anything, according to our correspondents in the area, the recent flooding has kindled what, in the UK, we call the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ – where personal differences are laid aside in order to resolve the emergency facing a community, where everyone accepts the authority of the rescue services, and where all agencies pull together for the public good. This has assisted recovery efforts greatly.

It is important in future terms, as both New Orleans and South Yorkshire provide different, but empirical, models of how a community can react within a disaster scenario. South Yorkshire has demonstrated that public disorder is not inevitable after a disaster, that emergency services can co-ordinate to deliver effective relief, and that engaging the local community aids rather than hinders the recovery operations. Thomas Barnett was not entirely right – the guns don’t always come out after the third day.

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