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Our government's big green idea: let's subsidise natural disasters

Mike Woolgar | 27 Feb 2015 | Comments

George Monbiot recently wrote a short polemic in the Guardian on the above subject, decrying poor land management as being a contributor to some of our flooding issues, signing off on the way Government soft pedals controls in the farming industry, providing monetary subsidies and regulatory relief subsidies: in effect about the lack of policy congruence in Government.

Whilst it is not a new thing that one Government policy may put strain on others, Mr Monbiot’s point about land use practice is a valid if slightly narrow one. Soil management is a pretty much neglected aspect but forms only a part of the rising concern about the water-energy-food nexus.

Leaving aside the energy aspects of the water-energy-food nexus for the moment, it is clear that water and food can be linked directly to soil management. Impoverished, overused, badly drained, ploughed in the wrong direction or at the wrong time of year, unprotected from wind erosion: soils the world over are under strain, being lost to erosion and having to work harder all the time to feed the ever growing population. In countries like Bangladesh, Malawi, Kenya where I have worked deforestation and use of marginal land has increased soil erosion which reduces crop productivity, clogs rivers exacerbating flooding and – getting back to energy – reduces electricity generation from hydropower with the silt damaging turbines and reducing flow quantities through the plant. Shallow, poorly structured and low organic content soils are much less able to store and hold rain water leading to increased run-off under intense rain and then the need to add water through irrigation – often using energy to achieve this – to restore the soil moisture balance.

Current loss of soil in the UK is less dramatic than in such other countries and less significant than it has been over recent history. Improved farming practice and a raised awareness of the role that land management can play in reducing flooding, slowing erosion and improving water quality combine to suggest we are slowly heading in the right direction.

Mr Monbiot is right to point out that integration of policies would be helpful in resolving multi-faceted problems such as catchment management for food, water quality, flooding, ecological value, landscape value, soil health etc but in my view weakens his argument by not addressing the land/water/economic interface that needs to be addressed – where is the integrated Government policy on water management, soil management, energy mix, economic impact/sustainability?