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Striking a high note

Working lives - Mary Dhonau has been flooded with success in her fight to keep Britain's homes dry, discovers Jon Young.

When, in 1982, Mary Dhonau graduated from the Royal College of Music to begin her career as an operatic soprano, she could never have guessed she would become a leading figure in the country's fight against flooding.

Dhonau, who is married with five children, is a household name in her home county, Worcestershire, because of her campaigning on local issues, most notably the need for flood defences. She has some national fame too: Last Friday Channel 4's Richard and Judy interviewed her about flood risk and management. She has lost count of the number of television appearances she has now made.

Dhonau, who lives in Bewdley, was hit by her first flood in 1995. 'My house isn't anywhere near the River Severn but when it rains the town's sewer system can't cope and so all the sewage rises and floods the area, ' she reports.

In autumn 2000, after wading through raw sewage following her 10th flood, Dhonau decided to get together with neighbours and take action to prevent any more repeats.

'We headed off to see Mr Blair at Downing Street to get something done. He did not like a gang of angry women outside, jumping around and making a fuss.' Dhonau was thrilled with the success of her fi rst campaigning attempt. In early 2001 final plans were drawn up for a £2M pumping station that would alleviate sewer flooding in Bewdley.

Hungry for further success Dhonau and her neighbours decided to set up Worcester Action Against Flooding (WAAF) in 2001, to help others in the area who were still suffering the effects of the previous autumn's flood.

'I was a flood victim so I know what it's like to have your life washed away, ' says Dhonau.

In January 2002, residents of Bewdley got together to form the National Flood Forum (NFF). The NFF is a not for profi t lobbying body that has played an increasingly important role in the fight to reduce flood risk and improve public awareness.

'There are 2M people in this country at risk of flooding, ' many of whom are unaware of just how vulnerable they are, ' Dhonau notes. 'We need to tell them.

'Just because you don't live next to a river doesn't mean you can't be flooded. Flooding can come from springs in the ground or the run-off from agricultural land, or from the sheer velocity of rain from highways drainage.' The NFF relies on government and private donations to fund its activities, and has to find £200,000 a year to stay afloat.

Dhonau is its director and co-ordinator.

Dhonau is still the chair of the WAAF and has helped set up nearly 70 action groups around the country. She can often be found at the scene of major floods offering help and advice.

'I went to help at the Carlisle fl ood earlier this year and when I got there I found a woman sat outside her house with her remaining belongings. She had been burgled the night before and now had lost everything.

'I knew exactly what she was going through, so the first thing I did was give her a big hug and then offered her advice on what to do and where she could go.

I want there to be someone like me in every county.' Dhonau also arranges flood fairs around the country: 'They're one-stop shops for everything you need to fight the floods.' Dhonau says: 'I realised early in my career that I would never be a professional opera singer.

But I'm happy with what I've achieved and am achieving.' She jokes that her opera training helps her to be heard when she is lobbying for more money and help.

Last year she used her local fame to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate in the general election. She did not win a seat, but did succeed in increasing support for the Lib Dems in Worcester by more than 35%.

'I'm a life long supporter of the party and very well known, so it was only logical that I should be chosen to stand.'

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