Natural flood management (or ‘river rewilding’ as it’s sometimes known) has emerged as a particularly interesting point of debate.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

In case it’s escaped your notice, it’s been raining. A lot. And for a long time.

Political debates and column inches alike have been awash with talk of the recent flooding that’s wreaked havoc across large swathes of the UK. Some have called for stronger government leadership; others for an end to what some have described as perverse land management subsidies. Others still have questioned the evidence linking extreme weather events to man-made climate change. And, as of this week, even Prince Charles has waded (quite literally!) into the debate.

Within this wide-ranging discussion – amid the scandal and superlatives – attention has thankfully turned from problems to practical solutions. Among them, natural flood management (or ‘river rewilding’ as it’s sometimes known) has emerged as a particularly interesting point of debate – not least for those of us in the Science Policy Centre exploring the role of nature in building human resilience to climate change and disasters.

Natural flood management uses natural processes and landscape features to manage flood risk in a relatively ‘sustainable and cost-effective’ way. As a concept it’s hardly a novel one, featuring as it did in the Pitt Review into the 2007 UK floods, and cropping up in flood and erosion management schemes the world over. But it is still a relatively marginalised one: most demonstrations are merely small-scale pilots, and in many instances the tendency remains (rightly or wrongly) to opt for steel and concrete over soil and vegetation.

But encouraging examples are out there. And my colleagues and I were fortunate enough to witness one of these in North Yorkshire (for further reflections on our trip, see this guest post from resilience working group member, Professor Peter Head CBE). The Slowing the Flow initiative in and around the town of Pickering works with nature to retain more water in upstream and middle catchments and to slow its passage downstream. This is done by (among other things) constructing earth embankments, blocking moorland drains, planting riparian woodland, and introducing woody debris dams into the river.

In this short (and suitably rainy) video, Tom Nisbet, Programme Manager for Forest Research at the Forestry Commission, explains the Slowing the Flow initiative – and particularly the woody debris dams – in more detail.

Positive signs, certainly; but no panacea. Despite their appeal, nature-based solutions are unlikely to be successful in splendid isolation (as discussed in my previous post), and will be effective to differing degrees under different environmental and social circumstances. Whether they move from the margins to the mainstream remains to be seen. Either way, we will be watching with interest.


  • Emma Woods

    Emma Woods