The year is 2050, the city is London. The landscape of the capital has changed radically after the decision-making process over the effects of climate change was taken out of the hands of engineers and put into the hands of bureaucrats. The story is fiction, taking some worst-case scenarios and building a tale of one potential future - but is such a thing so very unlikely? Decide for yourself...
One year after The Floods - when long-term rising sea levels combined with extremely heavy rain, high tides and storm surges to cause widespread floods across the south and east of England - I go in search of ordinary people to hear their stories. After the rivers burst their banks and the flood defences failed, how are people carrying on with day-to-day life in a drowned country?The city of Leeds did not suffer directly from The Floods, but it’s seen a massive influx of displaced people. Refugee camps housing East Anglian refugees surround the city, and new permanent settlements are sprouting to replace the lost towns and villages.
The Fenlands camp contains people moved from the land around the coast of The Wash, where drained marshes have now been reclaimed by the sea, driving the locals from their homes.
The camp has a makeshift feel to it, made up as it is of temporary accommodation in the form of tents. Most people move on to more permanent resettlement after a short time, but I speak to Hilary Jenkins who, as a worker in the camp, is something of a veteran.
She explains how her close-knit community was torn apart by The Floods.
“Everyone got all mixed up, random-like. Families stayed together, mostly, but the rest of my village ended up in different camps. The only way I can keep in touch with my neighbours and friends is on the Women’s Institute comms group,” she says. “This camp here isn’t a community, people come and go all the time so it’s impossible to build up proper relationships. I don’t know who’s going to be living in the tent next door to me from one day to the next.
“My husband Joe found work in one of the polder gangs, working with the Dutch engineers who run the reclamation crews. He reckons that he could eventually qualify as a flood control engineer. Apparently in the future they’re going to do controlled flooding, as well as widening rivers and building up their banks, so there’s going to be a lot of demand for flood engineers.
“I was a catering manager before all this happened,” Hilary adds, “and now I’m in charge of the cooking for all these people, overseeing the kitchens. The same thing, but just on a bigger scale.
“It’s not as easy as it was, what with the food shortages. We don’t go hungry but there’s not the same choice as before. Everyone’s really sick of those knotweed cakes but the government insists they are nutritious and cheap. They don’t half taste vile, though.
“Still, mustn’t grumble.”
I head south to find out what life is like in the capital - but getting there isn’t easy. All roads used to lead to London, but now many of the motorways have become impassable, with large sections washed away, covered with mud where embankments have slipped, or being submerged under water.
Besides, with petrol prices what they are, motor travel is out of reach for most people, particularly on my salary.
So I take the train, putting up with the many delays and detours caused by engineering works. As I wait on one platform, railway engineer Jeremiah Springfield explains why the trains are never on time.
“It’s the heat, you see. It makes the metal in the tracks expand. They warp and buckle, and that leads to derailments. We’ve had to make the expansion gaps bigger, to give the metal room to expand. But you can’t make the gaps too big, or the train wheels will fall into them. That means shorter sections of tracks, allowing more gaps.
“So we’re taking up the tracks, cutting them into shorter lengths, then relaying them. Once we’re done, things will run a lot smoother. But it’s a hell of a job.”
He offers me a knotweed cake, but even if they are free I would rather go hungry, so I politely decline.
From the train window I see new settlements springing up - prefab micro-homes, tiny pods for single occupancy and slightly larger ones for couples and families. These metal boxes, stacked high and bolted together, are fast to erect and relatively cheap. It’s a good way to provide housing for the people whose towns and villages have been destroyed by The Floods.
Once I get to London, I make my way by water taxi to a community that has managed to stay together, despite being flooded out. In west London, the affluent residents of Isleworth, on the banks of the Thames, had the resources and the foresight to find a better way to cope with The Floods without losing their homes.
Jeffrey Coder says: “Well the road that lay between our homes and the river used to get flooded several times a year anyway, so the houses were built up a bit, with the front doors several steps up from the road. We were used to sandbagging the basements every year. But the floods were getting worse and worse, and the insurance companies were making threatening noises about not covering us for any further flood damage. So we pooled our resources and got some engineers in to make the properties flood-proof.
“We filled in the basements with concrete, which took care of subsidence problems. We raised the downstairs floors another few feet. It made for lower ceilings but I’m a short fella so I don’t mind.
“Now the river has risen right up and there’s no road,” Jeffrey continues, “but our front doors are still above the water level. We have to use boats to get in and out. Everyone has small row boats tied up by their steps.
“We have to stay vigilant to deal with the knotweed. This new strain grows in the water and tries to climb up the walls. Nasty stuff. I don’t know if I hate it more growing wild, or when it’s processed into those disgusting cakes.”
As we talk, we keep getting interrupted by the seaplanes flying low overhead on their way to Heathrow. “Noisy things - funny how they can always find fuel for the planes, but not for ordinary people to use motor boats.
“The biggest problem we have now is sewage. Mogden Sewage Works isn’t far from here. It got flooded out, which was horrible - we had rivers of sewage running past our houses. They’ve got it under control now but for a while we couldn’t open the windows for the smell.”
Down the road from the Coder residence, blocks of flats built on the river’s edge crumbled when the foundations were washed away in The Floods. Builders are now constructing replacement blocks on stilts. The gleaming white walls are coated with lime to reflect the summer heat as well as kill insect pests and the roofs are covered with solar panels, which provide much of the development’s energy needs.
Tatya Kosigan and her family have recently moved in to this new development. She used to be a bus driver; now she drives a barge, making deliveries along the river’s edge. “After our home was washed away, we were rehoused here. Just as well because we lost everything in The Floods. The insurance company went bust before we received a penny, so we had to start again from scratch.
“I work at the big government depot upstream but I plan to go freelance - buy a small motorboat so I can do fast jobs for small companies. Supermarket deliveries, courier work, that kind of thing.”
Tatya and her wife Anya have three children. The oldest, Vlad, works for the St Albans Wine Company. He’s visiting for the day. “It’s all in greenhouses, of course. There’s too much rain and too many storms to grow the grapes outside. I boss the people who tend the vines, maintain the hydroponic solution they grow in, ensure the nutrients are kept at the right levels and so on. Our vintages have won international awards.”
The teenage boys love living on stilts. Mikal says: “Our flat is on the bottom floor. There’s a trapdoor in our hall that opens up so we can climb down a ladder into a boat. We use kayaks to harvest knotweed from the banks, and the government pays by the bagfull. It’s great ’cos it always grows back so we can keep on getting more money.”
“And there’s a rope from our bedroom window,” Ivan adds. “We jump out and climb back up. Sploosh!” The wide windows, designed to help air circulation through the homes, do indeed provide a handy extra exit for adventurous children.
Anya feeds them a snack of knotweed cakes, which they chew unenthusiastically. Before sending them outside to play, she applies insect repellent. “Those dratted mosquitoes are everywhere. I don’t want them to get West Nile Disease.”
Another practical solution to the housing shortage caused by The Floods can be seen with those who have taken to the water in houseboats and barges. In places, ramshackle boats have been lashed together to form large floating shanty towns.
Others have remained mobile, allowing the owners to travel up and down the river in search of work, going where the jobs are.
Indeed, the Thames is seeing far more traffic than earlier in the century. The water taxis are ubiquitous, and they remain a fast and reliable way to move around the capital. The drivers are just as garrulous (and opinionated) as their road counterparts once were.
“It’s a good thing these boats are small,” explains my cabbie. “Did you know the bridges are all lower? Well, with the water risen, it stands to reason. Less clearance. That’s why the narrowboats and the barges are doing well, they can still fit under the bridges, but the big boys, they can’t make it past London Bridge. The knotweed doesn’t help, it clags up the waterways something rotten. The government clears it but it grows back so fast.”
On the other side of London a community has come up with a very different solution to The Floods. The bankers of Docklands took steps of their own to ensure their gleaming edifices were not drowned.
The Isle of Dogs - now truly an island - is surrounded by giant concrete levees, built in the nick of time to protect the engines of capitalism in Canary Wharf. Now the city workers both live and work on the financial island.
The bankers and billionaires showed remarkable foresight. They realised the need for lower-paid workers - the clerks and the cleaners, the receptionists and security guards - so rather than just protecting their own luxury flats, they built the walls that keep out the water to also encompass the council estates.
The rich travel to and from Docklands by helicopter. Simon Jensen is a pilot who flies from the new helipad on the roof of one of the tall buildings. But what interests me is his hobby.
“Scuba diving. I learned on holiday some years ago. Now I dive around the drowned villages on what used to be the Kent coast. It’s amazing what you can see down there. The waters came up so fast, people didn’t have time to evacuate properly - they just fled with what they could carry. So the houses are still intact and all their belongings. Cars, too, slowly rusting away. Fascinating.”
Femi Olawaye can’t afford to travel, let alone by helicopter. She’s a cleaner who has lived on the Isle of Dogs all her life. “I am pleased I didn’t lose my home. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. I hardly ever leave the Island because the water taxis are pricey. My son lives up north and I can’t remember when I last saw him.
“We’re not suffering like some of the people you read about. But I wish we could get better food. The government keeps shipping in those disgusting green cakes which are chewy like cardboard and taste like I don’t know what. Perfectly nutritious, they say, but perfectly vile too. I know getting rid of all that knotweed is a problem, but do they have to make us eat the stuff?”
Femi used to be a ticket inspector on The London Underground. “I was on duty the day of The Floods. Scary. The water washing down, the big metal doors swinging shut to stop the tunnels flooding completely, and people on the trains that were caught inside - they were trapped for days before we could get them out. A lot of people died.
“Now the parts of the Tube that were in the deepest tunnels have been abandoned. It’s all overground now! They’re rebuilding the lines as elevated sections.”
These are just a few of the short stories I collected from people who are living in the aftermath of The Floods. There are many, many more to tell, but space is limited. These few tales will have to suffice to demonstrate how the people of the UK are coping with the big changes to their lives since The Floods. *