Saturday 27 May 2017

Deirdre Conroy: We lack a co-ordinated and sustainable strategy to tackle flood damage chaos

An aerial view of flooding in the Shannon basin between Banagher, Co Offaly and Parteen Co Clare
An aerial view of flooding in the Shannon basin between Banagher, Co Offaly and Parteen Co Clare
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

In his response to the emergency that has one fifth of Ireland looking like monsoon season in a Third World nation, Environment Minister Alan Kelly reported on Thursday that he would be delivering a memo to the Dáil next Tuesday. Six days to deliver a memo.

May I suggest that if the minister's house was flooded with raw sewage, all of his furniture, carpets and Christmas decorations destroyed, his family having to bunk in with relatives for the next few weeks, he might note that action was needed last year to prevent the annual destruction wrought by the relatively predictable weather.

This is the latest failure by successive governments to co-ordinate any sort of winter action plan. No doubt, the minister's memo will contain statistics and details of reactive efforts to stem the tide as the flood damage puts more and more residents and business owners out of their premises and poses a serious public health risk.

With our low-grade hotels already overfull with homeless and repossessed residents, where will the State find shelter before Christmas for the latest homeless class and when will their homes be restored without insurance to fall back on?

I remember the devastation of Hurricane Charlie back in the 1980s; quite a lot of its destruction was in Dublin and remedies to strengthen the Dodder and Dargle river banks have been effective since. But it is hard to believe that in the intervening 30 years little has been implemented to avoid storm crises in towns and villages across the country. Clonmel used to be the worst hit each time the Suir burst its banks and flooded hotels and businesses on the quays. The flood defences that were installed after decades of damage have made a huge difference to the town. Similarly, Fermoy's flood relief system commenced in 2005 and was completed in 2013 at a cost of €35m. The town no longer suffers its annual deluge from the Blackwater. But Bandon remains one of the hardest hit towns with recurring damage to the same houses and shops, where insurance is no longer obtainable.

Re-routing watercourses and shoring up river banks means that water still has to find an outlet somewhere. That is where co-ordinated strategy is needed to ensure that livestock are not floating in fields.

Co-ordinated strategy is something this country seriously lacks. With each rotating government we have a musical chairs approach to long-term sustainable measures for effective planning and development. Local area development plans have become box-ticking exercises.

Following the recommendations of the Flood Policy Group back in 2004, the Office of Public Works became the lead agency in flood risk management. Five years later, in a voluminous report from the then Environment Minister, John Gormley, in 2009, entitled 'The Planning System and Flood Risk Management: Guidelines for Planning Authorities', local councils were directed to have flood risk assessments complete by 2011 and Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMPs) by 2015, under the EU Directive 2007/60/EC.

It is now the end of 2015 and in Athlone, the latest casualty of the Shannon overflow, the 'management plan' comprises one pump that locals take turns in manning over 24 hours.

You can almost hear Simon Harris TD scratching around for policy and practice rhetoric to stave off the embarrassment. As the minister responsible for the OPW, he is one in a long line of authorities who has allowed these Third World scenes to recur each winter.

During the boom, the Office of Public Works were so busy on vanity projects that their already overstaffed department out-sourced private sector architects for the more technical and design-conscious projects. Like the rest of the country, the OPW was affected by the downturn. There was no more money for projects, only money for guaranteed salaries, and mega-redundancy payments.

Why then, during those lean years were the State architects not taking the initiative to deal with the backlog of critical strategic work that had to be carried out, whether in designing, tendering and seeking emergency funding for flood risk management through the EU? I expect that would be because it takes initiative to do things that are not on your pay scale. I remember visiting an OPW depot several times and noticed that employees would sit in their cars from 4.30pm waiting to leave when the clock struck 5pm. Can you imagine anybody in the private sector doing something so audacious - in public?

Because of the lack of planning and co-ordination between local councils, the OPW and central government, there are hundreds of families out of their homes for Christmas. Because of the planning corruption across the country there are thousands of homes built on flood plains and bog land. Why have some towns got flood defences and others do not? Why are some townlands more susceptible to flooding and others not? Is the answer as obvious as what we saw on 'RTE Investigates' this week and will we have wind farm scandals in the next few years?

Flood damage is not an issue that can be kicked down the road until next winter. The 2009 report lays out clear policies and objectives; there is no justifiable reason these have not been pursued on a national level.

The matter is now a serious public health concern with rivers of raw sewage meandering through streets and floating in houses and extensive compensation for building damage.

Our political system facilitates successive parties to blame each other on environmental damage, and can no longer be tolerated as a democratic exercise, it is not for the greater good. Climate change is wreaking havoc on a global level; Ireland needs to take a long view on the flooding issue and stick to it.

Sustainable drainage systems, and strategic environmental planning to mitigate and manage the risk of serious flood damage, must be put in place for the good of society and not with the objective of getting re-elected.

Irish Independent

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