Britain battles devastating floods

Updated: 2007-07-25 01:26

GLOUCESTER, England - Emergency workers battled to hold back overflowing rivers after Britain's worst floods in 60 years engulfed villages and town streets and cut off fresh water supplies to hundreds of thousands of people.

Days of pouring rain have turned wide areas of central and western England into lakes, flooding 4,500 houses, threatening many more and leaving cars submerged. Harvesting of crops such as barley and rapeseed has been delayed and milk production and deliveries curtailed, sparking fears of food shortages.

In the western city of Gloucester, Ken Ticehurst, 41, said police had been guarding the doors to a local supermarket to stop panic buying of bottled water. "There's a weird feeling of being under siege," he told Reuters.

A woman airlifted out of the flooded nearby town of Tewkesbury on Saturday after giving birth prematurely to twins lost her babies, police said.

Only one other death has been blamed on the latest floods -- a 64-year-old man who died in a flooded cellar in Cumbria, northwest England, last week.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told parliament the swollen Severn river had now peaked.

The Thames river would peak further down-river in the next 24 to 36 hours and flooding in towns west of London such as Henley and Reading "may be unavoidable", he said.

He added that there could be further heavy rain in flood-affected areas in the coming days.

Global Warming?

Freak downpours have left many Britons, more used in recent years to record high summer temperatures, wondering if they are witnessing the impact of global warming. Other parts of Europe are enduring a heatwave that has killed 18 people in Romania and forced Greece to call a state of emergency.

Police, firefighters and the military fought a successful all-night battle to hold back floodwaters from an electricity substation that supplies power to half a million people in the western English county of Gloucestershire.

Flood victims in Gloucester began returning home to survey the damage. "It was horrible going through the door again," said student Sophie Pittaway. "Newts were in the house. I feel numb, I don't know what to do."

Some 140,000 homes were without water after a water treatment works at Tewkesbury was flooded. The army was distributing three million litres a day of bottled drinking water to local residents.

Insurers said these and June floods in northern England could raise claims of up to 2 billion pounds ($4 billion).

The government has promised more money to help with drainage and flood defences, but it has been criticised for failing to act sooner to tackle failings in its flood defence plans.

Scientists blame the heavy rains in Britain on the jetstream, a fast-moving air current that is more southerly than usual this year, bringing with it stormy weather. They are divided over whether the floods also reflect global warming.

"Extreme events such as we have seen in recent weeks herald the spectre of climate change and it would be irresponsible to imagine that they won't become more frequent," Nick Reeves, executive director of The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, a scientific group, said.

But Alastair Borthwick, an engineering professor at Oxford University, said there was not enough data to judge whether climate change was a factor in the flooding.

Top World News  
Today's Top News  
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours