If winds, currents, glaciers, volcanoes, etc., carry subtle messages that are so difficult to read that it takes us absolutely ages trying to decipher them, wouldn’t it be appropriate to call them intelligent? How would it be if it turned out that we were only the slowest and least intelligent beings in the world?
At the end of my road there is a river which flows down from the hills into a small, natural harbour. When the water is low even steppes can be seen carved out of the sandstone Along the banks several artificial cuts release the force of the flow, radiating the water down into the sea in gentle strokes, first one way along the grain of the slope, then the other. It is a salmon leap, to help the salmon climb the river upstream to where they spawn. At different times of the year the water level has been up and down depending on the rainfall, sometimes delivering masses of peaty-brown fresh water into the sea, or at others trickling under the stone bridge with hardly a sound. This month, with the heavy rain, the river overflowed. New rivers and rivulets formed, breaking through the bounds of the leap and spreading cross country, flattening gorse and bracken. The bridge was nearly covered, the neat edges of the salmon leap obscured, all the work of hands and dynamite rendered useless by the flood.
It is easy to forget that all our rivers were once soft, undefined passages of water, unbounded, periodically flooding and subsiding. We have made water part of our infrastructures: stored in dams, reservoirs, water tanks; directed and re-directed through pipes, canals, river systems; controlled by locks, weirs, taps, emerging through hoses, fire hydrants, fountains, delicate protuberances of the knots and entanglements connecting and disconnecting humans, animals and things.
Our aesthetics of water are embedded in these networks of technology, in the way we come to relate to them and be bound to them. Water comes to have its proper place and time, its own activities and functions. Embedded in the everyday, water comes to behave in particular places, in particular ways, at particular times. These models necessarily obscure the elaborate order that enables a single tap to draw down water when and how we like.
As long as water remains in its proper place it is incorporated, part of our sensible order. Flooding is the escape of water, overflowing our enforced limitations: excess rainfall, excess tides, excess waves, all excess to our sensibilities and infrastructures. Lakes spilling into fields, roads becoming rivers, houses submerged, cars lifted off wheels, water flowing down flights of stairs, carrying away plates and cups and furniture. Before destruction there is the very real disturbance to our settled aesthetics. Flooding is intensely disruptive
The department of the environment admits that ‘floods are natural’ and that they can ‘happen at any time in a wide variety of places’. Floods are uncertain and unpredictable, like most natural disasters. But government knows that floods themselves are not a problem, rather the lack of a proper place for them. Instead of dissipating our energies trying to eradicate floods, we need to accommodate them, find a place which includes them.
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of the importance of factoring into the planning system the risk to people, property, the overall economy and the environment from flooding, and the role that good planning has in avoiding and reducing such risk that could otherwise arise in the future.
The Planning System and Flood Risk Management, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, 2008
Walls and bridges offer the impression of defence, like ramparts, but water will always spill from our demarcations. This is the problem with ‘material structure’: they can never encompass everything, not the imperceptible strangeness of excess. We leave behind walls then, and work for new knowledge: the design and management of the ‘non-structural’; the clever re-assembling of the world.
Mitigation measures typically used in development management can reduce the impact on people and communities, for example, by blocking or impeding pathways but they have little or no effect on the sources of flooding. The planning process is primarily concerned with the location of receptors, taking appropriate account of potential sources and pathways that might put those receptors at risk.
Mitigation means acting softly. In most developed countries it is understood that the architecture of defence is not as effective as the architecture of accomodation. Such architecture channels, directs and deflects the disrupting excess into ‘holding areas’, where it can safely, peacefully, return to its proper place.
A major function performed by the floodplain and wetlands is to hold excess water until it can be released slowly back into a river system or seep into the ground as a storm subsides….Areas of floodplain and wetlands should, therefore, be recognised and preserved to the extent possible as natural defences against flood risk…By retaining open spaces for storage and conveyance of floodwater, flood risk to both upstream and downstream areas can be more effectively managed without reliance on flood defences. This is an important element of the now internationally accepted philosophy of “leaving space for water”.
In place of ‘limitation’, ‘containment’, ‘prevention’, are the words ‘porous’, ‘permeable’, ‘allowance’. In material terms it means ordering the world which the floods encounter: the identification and removal of potential blockages, the opening up of new channels to radiate out the energy of the flood. Most significantly, flooding, as the natural expression of water, is ‘given space’ to exist.
Expression through design. This is not like the engineering achievements of the Romans but an altogether more complex, subtle arrangement: the ordering of the context in which water operates. It is invisible and gives the appearance of freedom. Efforts to delimit water have advanced, accounting not just for her material presence, managed by walls and dams, but her very potential, that which is unpredictable. The flood is disarmed. Excess water can no longer disturb, as in: ‘throw into complete turmoil’. Government finds a space to deflect that energy, that vitality, so as to dissipate her ability to disrupt, to offer an alternative. Once flooding is given her proper place, her exuberance becomes part of the order, no different to the damming of the river, or the canalising of the marshland.
Breaching, evacuating, escaping, overcoming, are these not words used in different contexts to describe the creative experience of human beings? Of moments when experience overflows and can’t, in the present order of things, find a way to express itself? What if such moments were understood, not as disasters, natural coincidence, misfortune, but as what they are: challenges to the present?
Floods reveal situations taken for granted because they break with the order. The reaction, now, is to extend the order to find a proper place for the excess: new constellations of knowledge, regulation, technology, institutions, advisors, guidelines, standards. This policing negates the possibility for change. Perhaps we need a new vocabulary for understanding accidents, to render them more meaningful, not as noise or aberration, but as increasingly rare instances of exuberance. Flooding is only an accident when it encounters a world where excess has no place.
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