engineering geography water

Proactive natural engineering

Paul Quinn

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

Dr Paul Quinn is a Senior Lecturer in Catchment Hydrology at Newcastle University. His work focusses on the future of landscape. The long term goal is integrated catchment management bodies capable of solving pollution and flooding problems. Paul calls his research “Proactive” – as in getting stuff done. And he has been proactive in creating systems of natural engineering in flood prone areas such as Belford.

Talking points

We’re pressurising systems – taking climate change as read, we’re moving into hotter, more drought, more floods, more landslides – we have to get the food for everyone on the earth, enough water for everyone on earth, and everybody needs a safe place to live.

We’ve spent a 1000 years getting rid of all the trees, now in the last 200 years we’ve been trying to exploit all our soil for food. I’m a big fan of food, but it has really changed our hydrological balance – our soil is not really soil any more, it’s just the place where we grow our food. When water hits the soil it mostly tends to run quite quickly off the surface -it doesn’t interact with the soil so much, we don’t get the recharge,

The fact that we’ve really changed our system everywhere…changing the whole world into a food factory. And it has these spin-off side effects that we get more floods and more droughts.

As one of my colleagues said, if you kill your soil you kill the world. And people haven’t realised how much we’ve changed the soil…and the rest of the world we cover with concrete.

If we look at nature it gives us some indication of how the world should be functioning, and the world system now is out of balance.

We’ve been compressing the soil for 200 years, it has no porosity any more, especially in the UK with so much clay, we’ve got a big block of plasticine. There’s no structure to the soil, the rain can’t get in, and kills all the worms and biology. So we cultivate and irrigate the top layer, but it doesn’t take long to overwhelm that.

It’s still a green and pleasant land…I’m a big fan of farming…but people haven’t noticed this big change in the water balance: both droughts and floods.

People always talk about this wall of water – so we work to slow down the water before it gets there.

Take all the opportunities that you can.

We can’t build the walls higher and higher.

The best place to store water is always in the aquifer

The old understanding that the water should be in balance with the soil, and the soil with the ecosystem – there’s some very basic natural concepts – and you break these rules at your jeopardy.

We need to chose what we want our landscape to look like and what we want it to supply to us. It has to provide us with clean water, it has to supply us with all our food, and it has to supply us with a safe place to live. So we’ve been looking at how much of the land do we have to give back to nature.

If we can use the main flow pathways that the water is following, then we can create corridors of green, where we can store water, we can strip out the sediment, we can accumulate carbon, we can let all the bugs come back…this corridor of green that will bring the whole catchment back into balance. We can mitigate for the farming, by getting the farmers to give back some land, and that land is best in the riparian area…maybe 5% of the land. Not abandoning to nature, but managing it to get all those things that we need – clean the flow, slow the flow, recharge the aquifer and create a healthy place for pollinators, birds and fish. In a way, to engineer the system back into balance.

It’s very different from the hydrophobic approach to water and land management – of paying to get rid of water then paying to put it back with irrigation.

(Is this the future of British landscape?) We’ve got to do something, we can’t just keeping pouring concrete around our towns, a bit of protection is good, but eventually it will be over-topped. We can build walls higher, but we can’t keep building them higher.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the term Engineering, and that’s understandable, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring concrete where it wasn’t wanted…but the kind of engineering we’re talking about, this working with natural processes – if water is flowing too fast, slow it down, if you can slow it down then other processes can kick in.

We don want to make it clear that if we are going to build something then it’s got to work – it has to be engineered. So we have guidelines, you need to know hydraulics, you need to know how to build something that will last – it might be natural engineering, but it is still engineering.

The jury is out on cost, there are other options such as lower intense organic approaches to building up the soil, but can that feed everyone? if we are going to stay on the trajectory of sustainable intensification, then we have to increase crop yield and make the landscape safer at the same time.

The key to focus on soil health – not just soil productivity.

(Success?) Doing a whole catchment was pivotal. Not only the success of doing a catchment, but now it’s being taken up all over the country.

(Activist?) I’m passionate. I’m driven more by frustration than love. You see things going wrong and you think “that’s easy to fix” so you go and write proposals, and everyone ignores you for years, and laugh at you for years, and you say to yourself, “no, I’m right here”, so you surround yourself with like-minded people. We call ourselves the Proactive project because we say “let’s just get it done, and we’ll do it till it’s done”. And we’re back-fitting the science, we’re trying to invent something here…and the natural thing is back. I’ve tagged the term engineering on it, because engineering is doing things not just being inspired by it. If we can line up the funds, there’s no reason why we can’t bring whole landscapes back into balance.

(Motivation?) I’m paid quite well for what I do, so I always feel obliged to get some work done. But once I see that something can be solved, why wait for someone else to do it? Flooding is the most miserable thing, and it’s a no-brainer, if everything is running too quick, then slow it down a bit. Because it’s a system, the more good things you put into it, the system becomes more robust.

Stop observing, stop calling yourselves scientists and get stuff done.

(Challenges?) Getting other people to build these things.

(Miracle?) We need to work at much larger area and try this out. Healthy soils, healthy streams…do all this at a really big scale.

(Advice?) When I say go back to nature, don’t go too far, we’re not going back to the wild, but be inspired by nature and let it shape some of your thinking – if it’s too fast or there’s too much of a thing, it’s usually bad. So think about balance. Also, do you know where your local river is, if you’re in a city it’s probably buried or behind a fence. Reconnect with nature: find out where your food comes from, where your water comes from, find out why you were flooded, what the cause of the drought is – get to the kids and train as many people as you can to think that way.

This was conversation was recorded at Newcastle University in September 2015. It was published on World Water Day, 2016.