Beyond the banks: The effects of flooding on animal and human life

By Jonny Prest

Written by Sean Dudley.

Image credit: DaveCundy Photography

About 10 years ago, I played a game of cricket. I don’t remember anything particularly about the match itself, but I remember a lot about the day after. 

I woke up feeling nauseous, cold, extremely tired and altogether downright dreadful. My brother, who had also been playing, was in an even worse state than I was. My father, who had come to watch, was worse again.

I contacted a few of the other lads who had played. They all came back saying they were bedbound, had been vomiting or were unable to do anything beyond just lie there.

Amidst the messages and conversations that flew around among the playing squad, we tried to determine what might have happened. We had all eaten from the same tea, a buffet of sandwiches and treats where everybody picks and chooses what they want to eat. So while it was feasible some of us may have consumed something particularly dodgy, for so many of us to have done so seemed unlikely. It could have hypothetically been the water from the clubhouse, but again, there had never been any problems with this before or since, so that was less than likely too.

The most logical explanation for the shared unwellness had something to do with the ground’s location. The pitch on which we had played lies just a few hundred yards from the River Soar, on the floodplains of the Soar Valley to the north of Leicester. About a week prior to the match in question, the ground had flooded, as it does regularly over the course of a year after moderate to extreme rainfall. 

We therefore collectively felt that the most likely explanation for our shared illness was something that had been in the water that had lay across the pitch a week prior. We could have then encountered whatever this was over the course of the day through the natural events of the match – i.e. picking the ball off the ground, and then touching our face with that same hand. After the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all quite familiar with how these kinds of things spread I’m sure!

Fast forward to 2023, and the same river valley has recently seen substantial flooding, up there with the worst it has ever been according to many local residents. A friend of mine who helps look after the cricket ground was surveying the damage and spotted a vole, taking refuge on the wooden beam of a bench.

When he showed me the photo, I started thinking about the problems flooding can cause, and memories of that pretty dreadful day 10 years ago came, excuse the pun, flooding back.

Of course, flooding is a disruptive thing anyway. Roads get closed, cars get stuck because people are silly enough to think their Fiat Punto is also a submarine, and in worst case scenarios, homes and properties suffer substantial water damage.

But beyond this, we also often forget how disruptive flooding can be to the animals and the natural world, while what the water actually contains brings the potential issues caused by flooding to a whole new level of danger.

The effect of flooding on natural environments

Flooding is obviously a natural phenomenon, but the influence and effect of human activity on water channels means that the natural process of flooding spreads the increasingly unnatural contents of rivers into areas where it can cause significant damage to natural habitats.

Before we get into the mucky topic of what floodwaters in Britain can actually contain, the process of flooding itself is enough to drastically damage or eradicate the habitats of creatures who live in the river itself, on its banks, and on the floodplain beyond. It is fair to assume this is the kind of situation the vole was dealing with.

Admittedly, to a certain extent, this is how nature works. If a creature is going to live on a riverbank for example, there is a distinct chance that at some point, the banks will burst and their home could be affected.

Regardless, the effects can be hugely detrimental to wildlife. During major flooding events:

  • Fish can be displaced as they get washed out of the river and are unable to get back once water subsides.
  • Otters, beavers and other wetland mammals can be displaced due to their habitats being affected by the floodwater.
  • Voles, shrews and mice will likely have to vacate their nests or risk drowning. If they do find higher ground, they become a more likely prey for creatures like owls and birds of prey due to the lack of protection they will have in new environments.
  • Floodwaters bring sediment which is left on the land after the water subsides, affecting plant life. This in turn can have a repercussion on which plants grow over the course of a year, which in turn can impact how birds may feed their young, for example.
  • Many small invertebrates can get washed away.

Though these issues are nothing new to animals who live near rivers, they are being exacerbated in many cases by two distinct factors – what the floodwaters contain, and the frequency with which such events are occurring.

To address the first of these points, taking a look at what a river’s water may feature is needed. At one point this summer in Leicester specifically, the river pollution was so bad that oxygen levels dropped to dangerously low levels, damaging the habitats of countless animals and resulting in ‘thousands of dead fish’ being visible on the River Soar’s surface, as highlighted by UOCEAN.

This summer also saw a man who had been working in the River Severn near Stourport-on-Severn fall ill and face a two-month battle with Giardiasis, which is caused by exposure to untreated water. 

River pollution, according to the Environment Agency, comes from three main causes: urban run-off (18), agriculture (40%) and sewage (35%).

As an example of the sewage problem specifically, in 2022, water company Severn Trent has been reported to have released sewage into waterways on more than 44,000 occasions for a total of more than 249,000 hours.

When a river that contains serious amounts of polluted water floods, the likelihood of animals getting exposed to chemicals, heavy metals, sewage, and agricultural runoff contained in the water, which the animals wouldn’t otherwise encounter, grows substantially.

And sadly, when animals are exposed to contaminated water, it can lead to direct toxicity. Chemicals and heavy metals can disrupt biological processes and cause health problems or worse.

An example from another part of the world is the high number of kangaroos who are believed to have died during flooding in New South Wales, Australia, due to consuming polluted flood waters in 2022.

The other area to consider is the frequency with which flooding is happening, and what is causing it. This is something with a wider cause and poses a substantial challenge.

Is flooding becoming more frequent?

Image credit: DaveCundy Photography

Flooding is happening more and more in the UK, often due to extreme weather events. Just recently, Storm Babet and Storm Ciaran have hit our shores and caused major flooding.

This comes on the back of many extreme flooding events in the UK this year, which have wreaked havoc with animal and human life alike. This includes major flooding affecting everywhere from Devon and Cornwall to East Sussex, to suburban London, to the historic city of York, and many parts of Scotland at different times of the year. 

There are also some concerns as to the efficacy of the systems designed to prevent major flooding, with experts calling for more funding for flood defences. And this call is backed up by evidence of a more consistent rainfall pattern. According to, six of the ten wettest years on record have taken place since 1998. And the years 2011 to 2020 were 9% wetter than the years 1961 to 1990. 

Of course, the problem of flooding is far from specific to the UK. California, Brazil, Malaysia, South Korea and Libya all suffered devastating flooding in 2023, meaning that these challenges are undoubtedly being faced on a global scale.

What is causing more flooding?

One of the major reasons for the increase in flooding is climate change. This is because climate change is a major reason for higher levels of rain, which are leading to more intense and extreme flooding. 

According to Action Aid, the air can hold 7% more water vapour for every one-degree Celsius rise in temperature. This means the impact of climate change in warming up the earth’s atmosphere is starting to be seen through the greater rainfall being experienced. 

What’s the resolution?

Ultimately, the direct correlation between rainfall, flooding and climate change means that efforts need to be placed accordingly to tackle the root cause. This is namely taking steps to cut the carbon emissions that are causing climate change, and therefore limit the repercussions of such change, such as more frequent and severe flooding.

Of course, taking steps to reduce climate change is a collective effort. While there are things that can be done on an individual level, the main way to reduce flood risk is for global promises to cut carbon emissions to be upheld and delivered on.

A 2023 study from the University of Bristol and global water risk modelling leader Fathom found that there is a possibility that the forecasted annual increase in national direct flood losses due to climate change in the UK can be kept below 5% above recent historical level.

However, this is reliant on all countries fulfilling the pledges they made at COP26. These included 103 countries signing up to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to collectively reduce methane emissions to 30% lower than 2020 levels by 2030.

Additionally, any country who has since made further Net Zero commitments needs to achieve these on time and in full in order to limit the risk that flooding presents in the UK.

So while our own individual efforts to reduce climate change must continue, much of the onus falls on governments and big businesses to collectively take the necessary steps to limit their respective carbon footprint. Without this, damaging flooding in the UK is only likely to get profoundly worse in the coming years.

A perilous situation

Image credit: Chris Gallagher

The devastating combination of increased rainfall and greater flooding risk, coupled with high levels of contamination and pollution within water channels, is a toxic and terrible mix that is already causing major problems and looks set to only get worse without radical action.

Sadly, this is the scary reality of what climate change is leading us towards. Much like our friend the vole, we are standing perilously close to a dangerous situation and need to adapt. 

This is not only important in terms of limiting damage to the natural world and habitats that live close to rivers, but also for human beings. Encountering contaminated flood water can bring sickness and illness as I and plenty others can attest to. But flooding can also damage property, cause massive amounts of destruction, and threaten human life. We need to find ways to limit the effects of flooding, and we need to act quickly.

It is for this reason that pressure must be put on the governments, organisations and institutions that have committed to reducing their carbon footprint to stick to their guns and do what it takes to ensure their targets are hit. Because if they are not, then there will be a collective price to pay. 

Beyond the banks: The effects of flooding on animal and human life

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