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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Floods and politics

All governments have to deal with events. That is, new and sudden circumstances that require quick and wise action. Sometimes the cause can be located in some human action: an armed conflict, a prison breakout etc. But other events, such as the floods across large parts of England these past few days, arise from natural causes. What is a government to do?

There will always be important lessons to learn. Could more flood defences have helped for example. Perhaps, though the scale of the flooding has been immense. The lessons we can learn will probably point less to an extra barrier here or there but to more fundamental changes in the way we plan and live.

Yet a commitment to learn those lessons, while necessary, is not enough on these occasions. There are sometimes quick and hard decisions to be made. Earlier this week, the government was on the verge of ordering the evacuation of a quarter of a million people, when it appeared that an electricity sub station was about to be flooded and put out of action. This is the sort of decision governments must make from time to time, and make well. The valiant efforts of the armed forces and emergency services averted the danger in this case.

However, when crises such as these occur, confidence in government (and the governing party) depends much on what action is taken afterwards. We saw this clearly in the response to the way US authorities dealt with the New Orleans flood. The response to the crisis raised serious questions and it appeared that it took the authorities some time to demonstrate the same urgency felt by the people suffering from the disaster.

Here in the UK today we have seen people very short of water as water bowsers ran out, their usual water supplies having been contaminated or put out of action. As the waters recede, the clear up begins with the need for money to pay for repairs. It is here that the risks to confidence in government can be deeper if too little action is taken. It does appear that the PM and Cabinet have appreciated the urgent needs of people who have suffered from flooding - action is being taken to increase emergency water supplies for example. Constant attention and action, even when the media have passed on to new stories, is essential.

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