A tale of two floods

by Leroy Carter

The recent flooding in Dumfries and Galloway and north England has been high on the media agenda. Given the levels of coverage you could be forgiven for thinking that Armageddon was nigh.

On the face of it looks like a national disaster. But is it really? One fatality. No towns swept away.

Two weeks ago 158 people died in El Salvador as massive flooding occurred in the provinces of San Salvador and San Vincente. You would have had to search hard to find much of a mention in the UK press. 

Historically flooding is the most widespread and devastating natural disaster known to man. The death-toll can be astronomical. The four worst floods in history have all occurred on the Huang He (Yellow) River in China.

In 1931 its banks burst and the floodwaters and related conditions such as disease and starvation killed an estimated 900,000 people. 

You have to go much further back in history to see the last time England was inundated to such a massive scale. In 1099 the country suffered its worst ever flood.

High tides and stormy conditions contributed to the deaths of an estimated 50,000 people as the level of the Thames rose and flooded London’s congested slums.

Paul Beck is the Operations Manager of Operations Mobilisation, a company that provides aid relief to disaster areas in the Third World.

He was recently in the Philippines reacting to September’s flooding that saw 80% of the capital, Manila, covered in water.

Mr Beck explained about the contrasts between Scotland and Philippines in terms of flooding.

He said: “The first things we must look at are the environmental differences such as degradation and deforestation that lead to differences in the in the severity of flooding in the Philippines and Scotland. The taking down of trees in the Philippines affects the ability of the land to drain water.

“Another major difference is that building permission and planning permission are much weaker in the Philippines than here. The poorest people are those most affected as slums are built on the sides of rivers. No permission has been sought and they are built illegally and never pulled down.”

Mr Beck added: “The slum dwellers build shacks that are not meant to keep out heavy amounts of water. Our buildings in Scotland may get flooded but rarely anything worse. In the Philippines buildings are simply swept away.”

The recent flooding was a result of tropical storm Ketsana that struck the capital. The death toll reached 1,100 with thousands more missing.

Manila saw its heaviest rainfall in over 40 years and emergency services were swamped as the city disappeared underwater.

photo by ABS-CBN News Online's Photostream

According to Mr Beck this year has been especially harsh as typhoons of great frequency and high severity batter the northern Philippines.

In Scotland we see a very prompt and efficient response to flooding despite its relative passivity compared to the tragedy in the Philippines. The response there is disjointed and chaotic in comparison.

Paul Becks explains why: “We see many differences in the government response of Scotland and the Philippines.

“The primary factor is in the amount of finances available. The second factor is in the ability of the relief effort to reach affected areas and to identify exactly where aid is required.

photo by cheltenhamborough@flickr

“In Scotland we have complete records. We know where people live and who has been affected.  In the Philippines it is much more difficult.”

He added: “There are no real records and relief efforts have no idea how many people live in each area or where those groups most at risk are.”

Flooding affects people all over the world but it would appear that we are luckier than most, but it is all relative, and flooding does have a big impact on our country.

Richard Brown, Head of Hydrology at the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, said: “It may not seem as severe on a global scale but flooding does cause huge problems for Scotland.

“Last week the Inverness and Aberdeen rail-links were closed down and we see many trunk roads closed due to landslides.”

Mr Brown also defended the media’s coverage of UK floods: “The media dosen’t over-react and it is needed to publicise the floods and make people aware. We have seen fatalities in the past. I don’t think that we over-react as a nation due to the scale of the problems facing us.”