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Severn barrage flooding 'disaster'

A Dutch report examining the effects of a barrage on the Oosterschelde, obtained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), indicates an ecological ‘disaster’ for the Severn if the proposed 10km barrage is built

Increased flooding is just one of the effects the barrage could bring, say the RSPB.

The Dutch study claims a barrage built across the Oosterschelde in the 1980s has increased flooding and erosion in addition to: “Devastating impacts for wildlife, fishing, tourism and shipping.”

The RSPB say the Oosterschelde: “Iis very similar to the Severn Estuary, where a barrage could have similar consequences.”

RSPB Director of Conservation, Dr Mark Avery, said: “This report makes grim reading. It is the closest we can get to proof that a barrage across the Severn will devastate the estuary.

“Although smaller, the Oosterschelde is very similar to the Severn Estuary in many ways and it is being damaged beyond repair, something our Government appears to have known since 2008.

“The Dutch built their barrier to prevent deadly storms from claiming lives. Ironically, it has now led to an increased risk of flooding behind the barrier, but it could be argued they had little choice at the time.

“On the Severn, we do have a choice. A barrage would not be built to stop storm surges but to harness the tides and generate electricity. There are other, far less environmentally damaging ways to do that, yet Government studies to date have been fixated on barrages.  

“We have long said the Government should invest in innovative schemes, which offer the potential to put the UK and UK engineering at the forefront of tidal power without the risk of floods, loss of wildlife and livelihoods.

“We know the Government have produced their own report on how a barrage would affect the tides and sediments of the Severn. The big questions now are what does that report say, why can’t we see it?” he said.

While the Department for Energy and Climate Change knew about the Dutch report in 2008, the RSPB say the department is yet to address the concerns of the Dutch study, which found:

  • Increased erosion has led to the loss of mudflats along the estuary, leading to higher waves and water levels. Huge sums will have to be spent on strengthening coastal defences to protect lives and property.
  • By 2050, the tidal flats of the Oosterschelde will have more than halved, falling from 11,000ha in 1986 to about 5,000ha in 2045 and 1,500ha by the end of the century.
  • Salt marshes will disappear from all but the most sheltered locations by 2050.
  • Less intertidal habitat will mean less shellfish and fewer birds. Oystercatcher numbers will have crashed 80 per cent by 2045 with other species “awaiting the same fate”.
  • Shipping channels will become shallower and harder to navigate.
  • Shellfisheries will be hit because of loss of habitat for the cockles and mussels.
  • Tourism will be hit by the loss of wildlife interest.

Readers' comments (9)

  • There do seem to be plethora of different interest groups denigrating every new idea for addressing society's insatiable demand for energy.

    They seem to be cancelling each other out so that we end up doing nothing. What is going to happen when the lights go out? Because on our present performance they will!

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  • Brian Corbett

    The RSPB ignores the reason why the Delta Scheme was built. Clearly the Author is unaware of the terrible events of 31st January / 1st February 1953 - only 57 years ago. Without the Oost Schelde barrage - and the Canvey Island defences and Thames Barrage here - Rotterdam and London would have been submerged during that half century.

    I agree with ian Vincent (see above) that the plethora of different interest groups will destroy the UKs' future.

    At 77 perhaps I have no need to worry about far into the future - and Gordon Brown ensures that society will look after all of us as we grow older!

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  • Robin Smitherman

    RSPB is very good at managing its sites and studying bird life; it is very poor at examinig wider issues such as transport and other environmental policies. Given that birds are mobile and can 'move down the road a bit' for short periods RSPB's objections to this barrage, which they first aired at the barrage's first incarnation in 1978, are hugely exaggerated. We should also remember that RSPB will never deliver a solution to the problem that the barrage attempts to solve. Dr Avery can be safely ignored.
    Robin Smitherman

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  • Oh dear! It is interesting to hear that the RSPB is both good at managing wildlife and studying birds, but that they don't have a clue about how birds will respond to barrages. Perhaps the authors above have access to better data than the RSPB. The Dutch (not the RSPB) have estimated losses of 80% of oystercatcher by 2050 in the Eastern Schelde. A 74% decline in the Great Knot population on the Australasian flyway has already been recorded in the past 25 years as a consequence of Korean barrages -presumably the birds have just moved and the major international effort to find them has just been incompetent!

    The erosion issues raised by the RSPB are recorded as a result of detailed Dutch monitoring and publication in reputable peer-reviewed journals. The Dutch are sufficiently worried to be considering a wide range of solutions, including decommissioning the barrage. Eric van Zanten and Leo Adriaanse of Richswaterstaadt (Dutch Ministry) made the effort to come here to share their experience so perhaps they are at least acting in good faith. Erosion is also something that has been a concern at Annapolis Royal, and there are also other analogues such as reservoirs that help to explain the pathways.

    These analogues are an entirely valid approach to understanding coastal processes - they form one component of the techniques described by the MAFF-Funded EMPHASYS project which was led by HR Walligford - presumably that consortium was also wrong? It might therefore be as well to wait for the Wallingford outputs to DECC before castigating the information RSPB have helpfully put in the public domain.

    The key point of all of this debate is not whether the RSPB should be safely ignored, but whether society is prepared to make a series of pretty well irreversible decisions. If we are, then the best test of the predictions will be the real-time model arising from a barrage. Unfortunately, we won't get a second chance if the expertise expressed in previous posts proves to be ill-informed. Also, those who have castigated the voices of concern will not be there to take the criticism if they are wrong.

    Perhaps the solution to the problem is to reduce consumption, grow a broad suite of micro-generation for local consumption, and build two nukes to provide necessary 24 hour baseload that a severn barrage cannot yield? Big hits such as barrages are precisely that - big hits in all ways, economic, social, environmental and they will inevitably polarise views. But, if we are to solve the problems we face it is not going to help if we fight a perpetual slanging match of engineering versus birds.

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  • I work as an environmental consultant and deal with engineers on a daily basis. It is a shame to see some still holding onto views whereby they 'safely ignore' expert opinion when it doesn't agree with their own. Can they provide detailed evidence and studies which support their assertion that the barrage will provide long term energy solution at an acceptable level of environmental and economic cost?

    The RSPB's role is to promote the conservation of birdlife, not to balance the overall energy situation. That is the job of decision makers in government who will listen to all the evidence provided including engineers, economists etc. There are obviously enormously important decisions to be made on energy production at a national and international level, but the only way to come to the correct, most effective, solutions is to listen to all the evidence and balance costs ad benefits of each alternative.

    As Roger Morris says the bulk of energy security for the future can be met by increased efficiency and reduced consumption. These are not as charsimatic as large scale engineering solutions, and so do not tend to get the press they deserve, but they provide the most cost effective way to help ensure the lights stay on in the coming decades. When the sums are balanced out they may also remove the need for large scale destructive, irreversible projects of the kind mooted for the Severn.

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  • I think the line about the barage's first incarnation in 1978 says it all.

    It would be nice if we had environmentally neutral technology that would solve our problems now or if we could show a sensible reduction in the rate of increase in demand for energy that gave confidence that there won't be an energy gap. Unfortunately neither are available.

    It has already been demonstrated that most current microgeneration techniques fall into the 'chocolate teapot' category and are nothing more than PR. If we are to address the issue it is going to be with some large scale engineering and for very good reasons that takes a long time. Even if it uses what is largely tried and tested technology such as nuclear power.

    Fortunately I am over 60 and it won't be my problem but I do believe that it will be my children's problem and on current performance we aren't doing anything to give them a start in solving it.

    We could start by requiring all the 'naysayers' to give up the fruits of the technology that is the cause of the problem in the first place so sell the car, stop taking foreign holidays, stop buying out of season imported foods and while you are at it hand over your mobile phones because we know how unsightly all those phone masts are!

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  • Fortunately Vincent with advances in medical technology you have a good chance of reaching 90, well within the timescale that some of the effects predicted to arise from climate change could be felt, so you won't miss out.

    On the point of environmentally neutral energy production i agree new, large scale solutions will be required, but that doesn't necessarily follow that a barrage is the only or best way to provide that energy.

    There are enormous advances being made at the policy level to reduce our energy needs, admittedly rather late in the day. On an optimistic note the Department for Eenergy and Climate Change shows final energy consumption actually falling at present and set to fall further in the future. With approximately 30% of the nation's energy use coming from domestic users, and another 35% from transport, there is a large potential to reduce our needs through improved technologies and investment in the existing housing stock. Better insulation, energy efficient appliances, more efficient engines and a reduction in journeys could make large inroads into our energy use. The London School of Econimics sustainability experts estimate possible reductions of 80% from these sources alone for example, ~50% of the national total. A certain amount of hair shirt reduction in consumer goods may be needed too mind you..

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  • So, in summary, a different scheme in a different country has caused some environmental problems that may or may not be applicable to the Severn. I'm struggling to see where the story is. Why can't we rely on the environmental assessment carried out for the Severn scheme?

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  • I'm sorry to hear that micro-generation is chocolate teapot territory. Agreed, there are limits, but there are big questions about the sense in grids that absorb up to 30% of output just carrying the load. I assume micro-nukes as used in subs andAC carriers are also teapot country?

    The one thing that we must face up to is that the days of cheap energy are numbered and so we need to think across abroad suite of solutions.

    As to the suggestion that what has happened in one estuary cannot be applied to another, I'm afraid that is only true if the morphology is based on different sediment reilience. So, yes it is correct that La Rance is not a good analogue for the Severn, but the Eastern Schelde exhibits similar sedimentary characteristics and as such is a valid analogue - see my recent article in Town and Country Planning (Jan 2010) and also the paper I published with Prof. Pethick in the Journal for Nature Conservation. There is also a book chapter in a volume published by Nova publishers. If that is not good at, do take a look at the volume on environmental impacts of barrages edited by Neville Burt - and published by ICE.

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