You want to know what systems thinking is? Read this: WHEN THE FLOODS CAME: ENGLAND’S WATER

People often* ask me, Arthur, what is systems thinking?

And I say to them: that is a very good question, go read this, and I hand them a copy of James Meek’s piece from the LRB about the floods in Tewkesbury a few years ago. Some selected quotes follow, and a weblink.

” There are a couple of A4 sheets of yellow paper stuck in the pub window. One reads: ‘gl20’ – the local postcode – ‘new houses no insurance’. The other has a picture of a house, with a wavy line representing water cutting off its bottom half. The slogan is ‘stop building on flood plain: no more’ and then in tiny letters ‘please’ and – back to big letters again – ‘mr shaw.’ This is a reference to Chris Shaw, Tewkesbury Borough Council’s director of planning.”

“Much to the surprise of almost everyone in the county, it turned out that this one waterworks, at a place called Mythe, was the sole, irreplaceable source of supply for 350,000 people. For ten days, much of urban and rural Gloucestershire was pushed back in time by a couple of centuries. “

A ‘science bit’:
“The Jurassic limestone of the Cotswolds had started May bone-dry – drier, in fact, than ever previously recorded. But by late July, the soil of the hills just east of Tewkesbury – Bredon, Alderton, Woolstone, Nottingham, Cleeve – was saturated. If more rain fell, the only place for it to go would be down to the valleys. And more rain did fall.”

But they were warned, by experts:
” Gloucestershire’s public servants – the councils, the health service, the police and fire service – had been well warned by the Environment Agency and the Met Office that there were likely to be problems with unusually heavy rain on the Friday, although nobody knew exactly where or when. The county’s emergency command system, known as Gold Command, opened up at its base in Quedgeley, south-west of Gloucester, on Friday morning, ready for the worst. The private servants knew too: Severn Trent says it issued an ‘emergency weather warning’ to its managers on Friday. But the company had locked itself into a mindset that precluded the possibility that its waterworks would flood.”

Risk assessment?
“…I doubt that even Colin Matthews would take his turn at Russian roulette with a light heart on the basis that a revolver had been fired five times and not gone off once. Mathematically, over 137 years, the chance of at least one flood on a site likely to flood every hundred years is 75 per cent.”

Enough already.

Don’t let me mislead you with those extracts, it’s not a simple ‘water company bad’ story; nobody comes out of this one unscathed. Not even you, you water user, you.
Go read it.

Then come back here and read this…

This will feature as a case study at a so-called ‘Systems Thinking Fun Day’ (not my choice of title) I’m planning, probably in London or Manchester.

Contact me for further details. Don’t all rush at once.

*I’m lying. I don’t think anybody has, ever.

I am so very aware that it it is vanishingly unlikely that there is even a single person who might conceivably make this request of me: nevertheless, just in case…