For hundreds of years, the Manhood Peninsula that juts into the English channel has relied on a shingle barricade to keep the ocean out. Today, residents are welcoming the ocean in. Earlier this year, a massive hole was punched through the western flood wall near Medmerry, and the ocean is now at liberty to come rushing over 452 acres of land, just as it has been trying to do for as long as anyone can remember.
It may seem like surrender, but in low-lying Medmerry, this was a more realistic strategy in the face of climate change. Some areas near the town are below sea level, so taking down a part of the sea wall and creating a floodplain buffer zone is more feasible than constantly building and rebuilding an ultimately indefensible barrier at the water’s edge.
The Medmerry “managed realignment” project, as it is formally known, was officially finished this week after fifteen years of planning, two years of construction and £28 million. It is the largest of its kind anywhere in Britain. A new, 7km sea wall has been constructed 2km inland of where a stretch of the old shingle wall was removed and the area in-between is now intertidal marsh. Acquiring the land cost over £8 million. Three hundred and fifty homes, two resorts and a water treatment plant are now protected from a one thousand year flood. In addition, the community now has a massive new wildlife refuge for wading birds, and endangered species like the water vole. The area, which will be managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was designed to be visitor-friendly with walking and bike paths and look out points for wildlife watching.
Medmerry has seen its flood walls breached 14 times since 1994, despite the fact that shingle was constantly being trucked in to replenish the defenses at a cost of nearly £300,000 annually. In March 2008, a 1 in 20 year flood, breached the wall during a powerful storm. The flooding severed the only road link off the peninsula and caused over £5 million of damage to local businesses.
“Rather than fighting it, we are working with nature,” Andrew Gilham, Environment Agency’s flood and coastal risk manager, told the BBC. “It’s an important change in approach, you can only keep building bigger and bigger defences for so long. We have to ask if we can make better use of public money.”
The U.K. government estimates that one in six of its citizens are at risk from flooding.
Coastal communities around the globe are being faced with a similar choice — build higher, stronger walls, or surrender land to the ocean. In the U.S., both strategies are being explored. Famous for its levy system, New Orleans is now also incorporating open spaces designed to flood into city planning, following designs pioneered by the Dutch. For its part, much of the New Jersey coast, devastated by Superstorm Sandy, is choosing to rely almost entirely on bigger sand dunes to hold the ocean back.