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Flood water - the silent, indiscriminate burglar

Worcester: the front line of Britain's changing climate.

Mary Dhonau
5 December 2014

openDemocracy has teamed up with Friends of the Earth to commission a series, 'Tales from Britain's climate change front line', about how people in the UK are already experiencing the impacts of global warming - and what can be done about it.

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I live in Worcester, a city infamous for being flooded. Worcester bridge and cricket ground is often seen on the TV during major floods. When we moved into our Victorian home, we didn’t for one moment think that we would be flooded: we didn’t live on an ‘official’ flood plain, where people at risk have something tangible like a river, stream or the sea to remind them that they may well flood. We were, in fact, flooded on many occasions but by far the worst was during the ‘great floods of the year 2000,’ when the depth exceeded 3ft.

The floodwater was not river water: it was sewage. I lived in a low spot of Worcester and every time it rained a third of Worcester’s sewage, both rain water and foul water passed by my home. With increasing development more and more homes were being added to the Victorian drains and they could no longer cope. Consequently, every time it rained hard, the drains overflowed into the street and then poured into mine and my neighbours homes.

During that dreadful time my youngest son, then three years old, had just been diagnosed with severe autism and severe learning difficulties. I was left reeling from the news. Having had four other healthy children, I knew nothing about autism and was profoundly shocked, as well as terrified for the future.

But I had little time to come to terms with the shock, as just days later our family home was waist-deep in foul sewage water. It was devastating. The stench was appalling! I remember clearly my son had woken during the course of that night, and when I glanced out of the window I saw the street outside looking like a river. I felt sick, as experience had taught me that my house would be flooded again.

My husband went downstairs to look and didn’t come back. Once my son had settled, I went to join him. I remember seeing all my sons’ toys floating in the floodwater, the sheer force of the water had upturned the toy boxes and as a result, he lost every toy he had. Our settee was floating in the water and everything sounded so eerie, a bit like it was no longer our home but a complete disaster zone. How on earth were we ever going to get back to normal again?

I will never forget the look of despair on my children’s faces when they came down in the morning and saw the havoc this flood had wreaked on our home. Because of his learning difficulties my autistic son was unable to understand what had happened. This compounded our misery as he was totally bewildered and just didn’t understand what was going on, or why he couldn’t touch anything. Nor did he understand why we couldn’t go outside our front door, why we had to live upstairs or why we had to wear wellies all the time. His confusion was the hardest thing of all to deal with, harder even than watching everything we owned, including my children’s drawings, photographs, and family videos lobbed into a skip during the long cleanup operation.

We were completely unprepared for all this, and it took nine months before our home was repaired and we could reoccupy the lower floor again. During that time I discovered that other people had stories just as hard as my own. One neighbour had what I can only describe as a carpet of poo running through her house. As she suffered from agoraphobia, her home really was her castle, and her condition meant that she was unable to leave. Another elderly neighbour had recently lost her husband - the flood took all her wedding photographs too. She disintegrated.

Since then, I have spoken to and visited so many people who have their lives devastated by being flooded. They have spoken to me of their utter despair having lost their home, their ‘sanctuary’ to floodwater. Flood water is the silent, indiscriminate burglar who takes no prisoners, doesn’t care whether it’s the young, old, disabled, rich or poor – it seems to malevolently wreck the lives of thousands of people, year in, year out.

Since I was first flooded in the 1990’s, I have watched flooding become a regular occurrence – it’s becoming the ‘new normal’. Why? Our climate is a-changing. We have not only built where we shouldn’t have, but also paved over far too much of the country.

It's my belief that flooding will get worse, wrecking the lives or more and more people, unless urgent action is taken to combat climate change. Government must accept that flooding is the biggest natural peril this county faces and not just work on the ‘next big thing’ when flooding falls off the media agenda. They must start investing more in Climate Change Adaptation and Flood Risk Management - and we all need to work with, rather than against nature.

You can read more about Friends of the Earth's work on flooding and climate change here.

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