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2 August 2021updated 18 Aug 2021 3:20pm

I lost my home to the London floods – and my faith in the government’s climate plan

In 15 minutes, sewage filled my flat and destroyed everything I own. What will it take for politicians to protect us from extreme weather in the future?

By Scarlett Maguire

I lost my home and everything I owned in just over 15 minutes.

I had sent my parents a picture of my back garden filling with water at 4.59pm, wondering whether it might be worth taping over the bottom of the back door in case some slipped in. At 5.15pm, having waded through three feet of sewage and broken down the front door, I was calling them from outside the convenience store next door. I was standing barefoot in my pants and T-shirt, my dog Merlin on a piece of string, as the rain continued to pour.

Hundreds of people like me have been affected by the recent flooding in London, some of whom are now homeless. Many were trapped, terrified, inside their homes, as torrential rainfall caused sewage to erupt out of toilets and burst through doors.

The flooding was so toxic that everything it touched was condemned. I thought it was bad enough that I lost all my clothes, books, photographs, even orders of service from loved ones’ funerals, but my neighbour’s child spent two weeks in hospital recovering from contamination exposure. He has now, fortunately, been discharged.

In a letter sent to my local MP, Thames Water responded to the London floods of 12 July by suggesting they were a one-in-300-year event. That does not appear to be the case. In fact, fewer than 300 hours later, London experienced more torrential rainfall and the Met Office science fellow and scientific manager Lizzie Kendon warned we should expect a “substantial increase” in these extreme events in the future.

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Scientists and politicians have generally reached a consensus that urgent action is needed to reduce emissions, but hand-wringing is not good enough. We need a radical and immediate overhaul of our infrastructure to help reduce the risks from the damage already caused by climate change.

[see also: London submerged: What it means when floods reach the capital]

The government has announced an additional £860m for thousands of projects across England as part of the flood and coastal erosion scheme. While this is certainly welcome, it represents a drop in the Thames compared with the amount desperately needed to protect areas from the risk of floods.

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Inner London still relies on Victorian combined sewer systems that were designed for a city of around four million people. Now serving a population of nine million, the network is at 80 per cent or more of its capacity, even in dry weather.

Matt Wheeldon, who is head of wastewater strategy for Wessex Water and sits on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ storm overflows taskforce, established in August 2020, is calling for “reform [of] our antiquated drainage system, and separate surface water drainage from our foul water system”. This would be a huge undertaking, with costs running into billions of pounds, he said.

Wheeldon is also seeking a change in legislation that would facilitate better water drainage at a local level. While this might like a small demand in the face of the global threat of climate change, its benefits should not be underestimated.

Leigh Hunt, the Royal Horticultural Society’s principal horticultural adviser, agrees. While the “flooding of two weeks ago was consistent with the things we are expecting from climate change”, the consequences of it need not be, he said.  

He added that we urgently need to stop paving over green spaces with hard surfaces, and that councils should be funded to do more on a local level to “use green roofs, plants and trees, even in our own backyards, to absorb water and slow the rate at which the rainwater reaches the drain”. 

In the summer of 1858, it took the “Great Stink” of London’s sewage seeping from the Thames into the Houses of Parliament for MPs to agree that immediate action was needed. The outcome was a historic feat in life-enhancing urban planning: Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system. More than 150 years later, in the grip of the global climate crisis, I hope it won’t take politicians being flooded out of the Palace of Westminster to start reforming London’s drainage networks with the same urgency.

[see also: This will be a century of extreme weather events. Our politicians are failing to face the challenge]