Flood Politics

With government money pouring into local climate change adaptation, Elliot Hurst considers how the left might shape a better flood response.

Recent floods in Angus and Speyside are a reminder; disastrous flooding is a recurring reality of our new climate era. Whether it’s here in Scotland, or in Pakistan, Nigeria, or China, overheated lands and oceans evaporate more water into an ever-warmer air, until it comes back to earth in torrential downpours, more violent cyclones or altered monsoonal patterns. Meanwhile, on increasingly-urbanised coasts the ocean is rising at an accelerating rate whose maximum velocity remains worryingly uncertain.  A flood is not (and never was) a ‘natural’ disaster. The floods of today and the floods to come risk amplifying historically-produced distributions of vulnerability.

Though decisions about flood protection are often made by bureaucrats and engineers, these are intensely political decisions. If flooding is political, then what is needed is a left flood politics, which connects flooding to capitalist dynamics, to class, race, gender and other historically-structured divisions, and to genuine democracy. Such a left flood politics forms part of the broader struggle against what Kai Heron terms capitalist catastrophism, where “capital’s self-undermining and ecologically destructive dynamics have outstripped capitalism’s powers to control them.” 


At some point in the coming decades – with the ocean a little higher, and the seas and atmosphere charged with a little more heat – a storm will roll across the central belt. Winds from the North Sea will shove a surge of water up the narrowing mouth of the Firth of Forth. Torrential rain will saturate soils, bubble out from stormwater drains and swell rivers. At Grangemouth, the River Carron will spill into residential areas. Waves whipped up by the wind will crash over the seawall and surge through the pipes, boilers, factories, power stations and cooling towers of the refinery and petrochemical complex. The ecological damage to the firth, and economic damage as industrial processes are disrupted, would be severe.

This is the scenario that motivates the development of a flood protection scheme for the Grangemouth area. Since 2015, Falkirk council, the Scottish Government and engineering consultants have been working on a plan to protect industrial and residential areas from flooding. The estimated cost of this plan is now approaching 600 million pounds, with this sum paying for 27 km of walls, raised bridges and pumps along a stretch of the Firth of Forth coastline, the River Carron and Grangemouth Burn. This would be, if it gets built, the largest flood scheme in Scotland by some margin. 

What justifies this expense is the current role of the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemical industry as keystone infrastructure for Scotland’s broader oil and gas complex. During the drafting of this article, INEOS, the owners of the Grangemouth refinery, announced that it would be closed in the next two years, with the potential loss of hundreds of jobs. However, with plans to convert the refinery site to a ‘fuel import hub’, and the continuation of petrochemicals processing, this announcement makes only a minor difference to flood futures. It seems unlikely that this shutdown (an ambiguous success for the climate movement) will bring an end to flood defence plans. 

Under the Scottish Government’s current approach to flood defence, 80% of the cost for the Grangemouth flood scheme will be paid by the Scottish Government, while Falkirk Council would be responsible for the remaining 20% and the substantial ongoing operations and maintenance cost. Given the depleted state of council finances, it is no surprise that Falkirk Council has petitioned the Scottish Government for a different settlement. Articles on the escalating expense of the scheme also present unattributed calls for INEOS to chip in. Whether this actually happens will be a good indicator of who holds the power in this flood zone (INEOS’s profit in 2022 could have covered the Falkirk Council operating budget four times over).

In the future envisioned by government agencies and engineering consultants, climate change-driven amplifications of rainfall and sea level sit alongside the continued existence of a petrochemical nexus. This seems to have been accepted as reasonable. As fossil-fueled capitalism drives climate breakdown, enormous energy and expense is being devoted to ensuring the continued viability and profitability of Scotland’s oil and gas infrastructure. While the companies involved spin visions of future-proofing Grangemouth’s petrochemical complex through the hydrogen economy or micro-nuclear reactors, the only future for these infrastructures commensurate to the scale of climate catastrophe is a rapid shut-down. 


Grangemouth is exceptional in being the location of the largest proposed flood defence scheme, designed to protect an industry from the floods it directly generates. But the case of Grangemouth also illustrates several crucial dimensions of flood politics. First, the question of prioritisation. Who or what is most deserving of protection? Grangemouth is one of twenty priority flood schemes across Scotland, most of which are delayed and over-budget (as the Ferret reports). The prioritisation process for selecting these schemes was grounded in benefit-cost ratios, putting industry at Grangemouth ahead of other vulnerable but less economically valuable communities. Alongside prioritisation is the question of responsibility. Who pays for flood responses, whether in preparation or in the aftermath of flooding? There’s no easy answers to these questions, but a left approach to flood politics begins with the recognition that the current answers aren’t working. 

It is with this infrastructure in mind that we can connect flood politics to broader debates about left politics amid ecological crisis. We might imagine an eco-modernist flood response which mobilises a more muscular state to surround vulnerable homes (and industries) with carbon neutral concrete floodwalls, pumping stations or other defences. In this account, flood vulnerability is indicative of austerity (and limited state capacity) constraining what is possible. There may be some truth to this – although we should consider that such concrete defences often leave people more vulnerable when they fail.

But, there’s more to flood response than infrastructure. The Scottish Government’s forthcoming Flood Resilience Strategy aims to (“engage a broader range of delivery partners to…”) deliver “diverse flood management actions”. These diverse actions each have their own political dimension. 

Down the coast in Musselburgh, another priority flood scheme is also at the design stage, and residents unhappy with the planned flood defence are presenting their alternative scenarios. They want the priority to shift away from concrete walls towards stopping water before it flows downstream to Musselburgh. This approach, commonly known as ‘Natural Flood Management’, has become a more widely promoted and accepted option in recent years, in parallel with a broader shift towards ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural climate solutions’. While popular with communities, these measures are not easy to implement. The reason isn’t (just) engineers wedded to old-fashioned concrete solutions. Floodplain restoration was also considered at Grangemouth, but the consultants deemed them unsuitable “principally due to land use pressure.” Put simply, the land that might, after restoration measures, play a role in holding back flood waters is already generating value for farmers as crop or grazing land. In proposing that land is put to use to protect villages downstream, those who advocate for catchment scale measures to reduce flood vulnerability are  imagining the catchment as a commons. But, at least for now, they lack the political force to make it so.

Rather than an affordable and less disruptive alternative to flood defence schemes, ‘natural flood management’ is a wedge that opens up questions about how land is valued and who has the power to shape landscapes. In this opening, ecosocialist politics shouldn’t overlook how cycles of flood and ebb have played a role in producing habitable waterways, wetlands and other amphibious spaces for other living beings. Flood defences as they often appear today – as walls and straightened, concrete-lined waterways – are ecological violence. An ecologically-attuned flood politics might reengineer upstream tributaries so that they hold more water, perhaps with the assistance of beavers. It might set houses back from the coast to allow salt marsh and tidal flats to develop. This approach represents an ethics of repair, responding to the decimation of the living world which accompanies and extends beyond climate disruptions.

Alongside engineered infrastructure and remade catchments, some aspects of flood politics (or ‘management’) operate on a more personal scale. In these contexts, responsibility and value are no less charged. For example, flood insurance in the UK is currently subsidised to ensure that even the houses most at risk of flooding can get insurance. Several councils have incentivised homeowners to protect their houses using ‘property-level flood resilience’, technologies such as waterproof doors and coatings. While important in some contexts, it’s easy to see how such measures might become a sticking plaster for more serious flooding issues, while widening the class divide between those who can afford to flood-proof their homes and those whose house or rental remains at risk. Finally, for an increasing number of homes, no flood defence scheme or insurance is going to be sufficient to adequately reduce the risk of living there. But for local authorities, requiring people to move and buying out their properties is made much more expensive and contentious because, due to inflated property values, these houses are not only places of residence but significant financial assets. Across different layers of flood politics there are connections to be made with struggles to decommodify housing and land. 

Finally, while they are important measures, neither developing flood protection infrastructures nor challenging capitalist value regimes can fully eliminate the vulnerability to flooding that we face. There’s an important role here for the kind of preparedness and mutual aid which, countless disasters have shown, can be best developed through community organising. 

Flood protection, as historically practices in Scotland, combines concrete infrastructures, technocratic management and capitalist logics. But the elements of a left flood politics outlined above aim to confront unjust vulnerability through a different ecological, economic and social settlement: flood infrastructures which carefully create waterways and coasts habitable for other beings, an untangling of housing and land from capital accumulation, and robust networks of community organising that prepare for and respond to the floods to come. If this is a utopian vision of flood politics, it is utopian in its hope that democratic deliberation and political mobilisation might produce a radical break whose impact extends far beyond flooding.

Elliot Hurst is a water engineer and communist geographer based in Edinburgh.