Flooding: Do Governments Make it Worse?

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Both the economy and the environment are complex ecosystems. Governments often upset the natural balance and cause damage because they combine limited understanding with an excessive zeal to mandate and subsidize.

In Washington , we have snow and cold, but I can’t blame that on the government. However, Britain has been suffering from river flooding, and Daily Mail article explains how subsidies are a key culprit: “Thought ‘extreme weather’ was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm.”

The author is a liberal environmentalist, but his piece illustrates how liberals and libertarians can share common ground on the issue of government subsidies.

The article describes how forests in the upstream areas of watersheds can mitigate floods. However, there “is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment … that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation.’ Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

In the United States, we’ve got our own environment-damaging farm subsidies. We’ve also got the Army Corps of Engineers, which the Daily Mail could be describing when it refers to British policy: “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour.”

 

The long-time bias of the Army Corps has been to spend a lot of taxpayer money on reengineering nature. Apparently, it’s been a similar story in Britain :

Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water. They soon discovered that this was not just wrong but also counter-productive. By building ever higher banks around the rivers, reducing their length through taking out the bends and scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things: they increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster; and, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional flood plains. The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic.

You don’t have to be an environmental expert to conclude that governments should at least “do no harm,” and not worsen the damage done by adverse weather. That means they should end subsidies for farming, deforestation, and building in flood-prone areas.