How regular landscape monitoring can save lives

With so much loss and destruction following in the wake of Hurricane Matthew and the Italian and New Zealand earthquakes, it is hard to sometimes accept the sheer magnitude of natural processes such as tectonic events or tropical storms. Like a big poke in the eye from Mother Nature, they remind us that we are far from able to command or control our natural environment. Instead, our energies are best channeled into proactive management plans that predict, protect and reduce the potential damage caused by these natural hazards. Ultimately we are seeking to minimalize the social, economic and environmental impacts.  In other words, we want to prevent a natural hazard becoming a natural disaster. 

The problem is that we sometimes forget that disasters can be caused by much smaller and incremental changes in our physical environment. An avalanche requires little more than a misplaced ski or a sudden noise to initiate a deadly disaster. Landscapes, such as hillsides and cliffs, perpetually exposed as they are to the forces of erosion, weathering and sheer gravity, require continuous monitoring and effort on our part to prevent natural movements escalating into a tragedy. A tragedy like the landslide that killed a 68 year old woman in her home in Cornwall back in March of this year. Just recently Cornwall Council has been found responsible for her death due to inertia on their part: landslide in Cornwall. They knew of the risk of landslips in that area but, despite that information, they did not act on it until it was, quite literally, too late. In an MEDC with technology, research and development and governing councils as sophisticated as ours this is wholly unacceptable.

The trouble is we forget that, since mechanisation, human impact on physical landscapes is creating an imbalance that we must be very careful to address. In other words, if we interfere with our landscape by, say, building houses on a hillside, we must ensure that we stabilise and maintain that balance. Erosion and weathering will not suddenly cease because we have put down a layer of concrete. In fact, very often, they are likely to increase. If we cover, for example, a porous permeable bedrock such as chalk with an impermeable surface such as tarmac or concrete we are increasing the amount of surface water that will collect and increasing the risk of flooding and associated destabilising of the localised area. So we must monitor the area much more carefully and repair any signs of damage or instability as soon as possible, before the crack becomes a chasm. In fact I think the cost of such long-term maintenance really needs to be budgeted for in any building development, as it is an inevitable outcome of interfering with a natural environment.

Just as we must invest in our  building and goods maintenance, must not forget to invest in landscape maintenance either.


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