A car park with car submerged after flooding in York, 2020.

Is it possible to stop flooding?

Extreme weather is getting worse and we need to find ways to adapt to the devastation it causes. Find out how planting trees and restoring peatland could help.
  Published:  18 Jan 2021    |      3 minute read

2020 will be remembered globally for the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was also a bad year weather-wise for many of the world's poorest countries. The 10 worst weather events caused thousands of deaths, displaced millions of people and resulted in over £100 billion in damage, according to a report by Christian Aid. And all from just one degree of warming.

How to adapt to flooding

We're already seeing catastrophic flooding impacting the lives and livelihoods of residents in places like Yorkshire and Wales. Cutting emissions across the globe is the top priority if we're to avoid more extreme weather events. While we can't stop flooding from happening in the short term, we can improve our resilience, and adapt our towns and cities to better deal with the impact.

Man-made defences, like the one in York, are essential. But we can also work with nature to "slow the flow" of potential flood waters.

More trees please

Trees bring multiple benefits to both nature and people. Not only do they suck up climate-wrecking carbon, they also use their roots to create channels for rainfall to soak deep into the soil. This stops water accumulating on the surface, reducing flood risk. 

There are some great small-scale plans to increase tree cover and protect local areas:

  • At Holnicote in Somerset, the National Trust has planted woodland to slow down water flowing off the land and protect the nearby villages of Bossington and Allerford from flash flooding.  
  • In Pickering in North Yorkshire, a combination of tree planting and "leaky" woody debris dams has helped slow the flow of the river and reduce flood risk.  
  • In flood prone Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, 250,000 trees have been planted across nearby valleys and hillsides in the past 20 years by community group Treesponsibility. Slow the Flow Calderdale has also installed a series of "woody dams" to slow the flow of water downstream. 

The recent reintroduction of beavers in places like the Forest of Dean is also cause for celebration, as beavers build dams that help to control the flow of river water.

But what's desperately needed is meaningful government action. For the past two years, we've been calling for the government to set a target to double tree cover. And more recently, we've lobbied decision-makers to adopt a well-funded, ambitious England Tree Strategy.*  

Though the government has promised to deliver such a strategy, it's dragging its feet and is currently only talking about low levels of tree planting. 

Restoring peatland

Upland peat bogs are also critical to preventing flooding. Acting like giant sponges, they soak up rainfall and release it slowly over time. But most upland peat bogs are degraded through drainage and burning carried out for grouse shooting purposes. 

The government promised to produce a peat strategy (including for restoration) by December 2018, but it's yet to publish one. We've worked with other environmental groups to spell out what’s needed in the peat strategy. Meanwhile, conservation groups continue to do the best they can with limited resources. For example, the Yorkshire Peat Partnership has restored hundreds of hectares of bogs by blocking drainage ditches. But there are still thousands of hectares left to restore.

Needed: ambition, investment and public pressure

Mitigating the effects of flooding, and preventing further climate breakdown, are by no means easy tasks. But with the right level of ambition, and the funding to match, the UK government can help change things for the better.

Friends of the Earth continues to push the government to make sure both the England Trees and Peat Strategies are up to scratch, and communities in the UK are resilient to flooding.

We're also demanding more decisive action on climate from government, like scrapping climate-wrecking projects such as Heathrow's third runway and insulating homes to cut emission and end fuel poverty. 

We need to pile on more pressure to make sure government takes appropriate action on both counts. You can support us by:

Adding your name to our call to double tree cover

Signing the petition for more urgent climate action


*Tree planting is a devolved issue, with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in charge of tree planting in their respective countries.