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September 28, 2008

London: burning, flooding, drying ....

Fifteen per cent of London is at high risk from flooding due to global warming - an area that includes 1.25 million people, almost half a million properties, more than 400 schools, 75 underground and railway stations, 10 hospitals, and an airport (London City ). According to the draft of The London climate change adaptation strategy, an estimated £160bn worth of assets is at stake.

This fascinating document expressly does not deal with the causes of climate change; it focuses on effects. "Even if all global greenhouse gas emissions could be stopped today", the report explains, "the immense inertia in Earth’s climate systems means that changes to our climate for the rest of this century are unavoidable. Preparing for these inevitable changes is not an alternative to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but a parallel and complementary action.".

This is fair enough. Scientists expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers, coupled with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and rising sea levels. London has no choice but to prepare for an increased risk of flooding, drought and heatwaves. (The image above plots so-called "urban heat islands").

This first draft Adaptation Strategy is measured and thorough; it's easy for the various actors, such government, house builders and so on, to understand what they have to start doing.

That said, the section on vulnerability of water supply contains an eccentric passage. The text states that "as water companies have a responsibility to provide water to their customers, the main group of people vulnerable to drought are those who would be financially affected by "non-essential use bans." These non-essential uses are helpfully listed: :
• manufacture and sale of hosepipes and related apparatus
• health and leisure clubs and hotels/clubs with private swimming pools
• car washing using hosepipes
• growing, sale, provision and maintenance of plants, including turf
• provision and maintenance of sport and recreation facilities dependent on
watering; manufacture, sale and maintenance of swimming pools owned by the
private sector
• manufacture and sale of ornamental ponds
• operation of mechanical vehicle washers
• washing of vehicles, boats, railway rolling stock and aircraft
• cleaning of building exteriors and industrial premises where a hosepipe is used
• manufacturers and sellers of paddling pools, hot tubs and water slides
• those who use hosepipes to clean patios, drives and hard standings
• those who depend on storage tanks for a mobile supply of water.

Tacked on at the end of this section are the words, "The environment is also vulnerable to drought”. (Extended drought periods will affect the ability of some species to survive, either through wetlands prematurely drying out, or through higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels that are associated with low river flows. Low flows also reduce the dilution of any pollution entering the watercourse, so increasing the rate of eutrophication and stagnation).

Now call me a pedant, but is it not the case that "the environment" is the pre-condition for life on earth, including London? It might inconvenience John Travolta if washing aircraft on driveways were to be banned - but it's surely a no-brainer that these non-essential uses should be phased out once and for all. Besides, the opportunities for an improved quality of life as London prepares for change are enormous. Urban greening figures prominently in the Adaptation Strategy's proposals; so too does the need to deal with noise.

An immense amount of innovation will be needed to retrofit buildings and infrastructure with equipment to enable greater water and energy efficiency. Even more important than these hard actions will be soft ones - the design of services to help Londoners meet daily life needs in new ways.

I should declare an interest here: I'm drafting a response to this Adaptation Strategy draft for the UK Design Council. As soon as that's ready, I'll flag it up here.

Posted by John Thackara at September 28, 2008 08:30 AM


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