Lucy Nichols reflects on the recent flooding in East London, arguing that it is working people who suffer the consequences of extreme weather events, while the wealthy and property developers adapt
Last Sunday saw almost biblical flash flooding cover East London and parts of Essex, with shocking images of partially submerged tube stations, bus stops and residential streets, from Hackney Wick to Woodford.
Two hospitals in East London, Newham General in Plaistow and Whipps Cross in Leytonstone, had to turn patients away, urging people to use A&Es in other parts of London. The London Fire Brigade recorded over 1,000 calls related to the flooding, and parts of the A406 were off limits due to high water levels.
Many homes have been flooded by sewage, and residents reported no help from Councils as they watched their cars and homes slowly disappear under the abnormal levels of ache and pain (cockney rhyming slang for ‘rain’).
These floods were, however, not a result of divine intervention. Flash flooding is a common occurrence and happens when the level of rainfall overwhelms drainage systems. It is therefore not unusual in urban areas, where there is more concrete, and it’s harder for water to soak into the ground.
We are likely to see more instances of extreme weather – flash floods, droughts, heat waves, and so on as a result of the climate crisis. As the planet gets warmer, higher temperatures in the ocean and the atmosphere make it easier for water to evaporate and for clouds to form, leading to increased rainfall intensity and duration, or frequency.
We have seen much flooding across western Europe and the US over the last couple of months. In Germany alone, 217 people have tragically lost their lives after flash floods swept across the west of the country. In New York City, flooding in June saw subway stations completely submerged.
The flooding we saw in East London is not an isolated incident, and even an indicator of things to come as the climate crisis worsens. The urban geography of the city does not help, and parts of Hackney and Newham remain particularly vulnerable because of the regeneration of the area since at least the last fifteen years.
Prior to the London 2012 Olympic games, the E20 postcode – parts of Stratford, Leyton and Hackney – was an industrial wasteland. In the build-up to the games, thousands of new homes, the Olympic Park, and of course the Westfields shopping centre were all built. By 2030, it is estimated that 10,000 new homes will have been built in the area – although not the affordable homes that are really needed.
This regeneration has of course been deeply controversial; the introduction of a vast green space free for use for residents of East London is somewhat overshadowed by the gentrification of the area and the pricing out of these residents.
But on top of these social issues, there are topographical problems that were never properly dealt with. These vast and expensive regeneration projects have not overlooked the fact that this entire part of London is low-lying and sits on a flood plain, in a valley.
When local authorities drew up plans to rebuild the East End, they built Westfield shopping centre surrounded by high staircases. There are no newly-built ground floor flats in Hackney Wick for just this reason. The flood risk was well-understood by the architects of the gentrification of E20; they just decided to ignore it.
It would be difficult to find a more perfect allegory for capitalism’s response to the climate crisis than the regeneration project in Stratford. Capitalism has merely adapted to the climate crisis in order for capital to continue to thrive in East London. It is only the new flats that have been made flood-resistant, while the older, affordable homes in the area continue to be at risk of extreme instances of rain like we had on Sunday. It is only the newest shopping centre that has been built to avoid flash flooding, while the market stalls and traders on the other side of Stratford remain at the whim of increasingly unpredictable weather events.
Capitalism will continue to build on flood plains, ignore heatwaves, droughts and storms. It is in the nature of the capitalist system to pursue greed and growth despite the destructive effect this may have on the planet. And as the climate crisis worsens, it will bring increasingly severe weather events, and it will be working people who suffer the most. It is therefore up to us to fight those who are happy to see the planet destroyed, and crucial we remember that while the wealthy can afford to cope with the climate crisis, the planet and the vast majority of people cannot.
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