Wednesday 26 October 2016

Flooding is full of surprises - yet it shouldn't be

A flood is a natural event but all too often we are unprepared for when they happen in this country

Conor Skehan

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Rising levels: A litter bin almost submerged in a flood Photo: / Alan Lewis / Justin Kernoghan
Rising levels: A litter bin almost submerged in a flood Photo: / Alan Lewis / Justin Kernoghan

I was out doing fieldwork recently, preparing flood-risk maps. My new assistant got two surprises.

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First she found it hard to understand why I looked so pleased about a playing field that was flooded half way up the goal mouth. I explained to her that she was looking at success.

A well-planned town puts land-uses such as sports, parks and parking into places that flood - while keeping homes and buildings on the higher, drier ground.

Her second surprise happened later, as we stood looking over a fence at a swollen little river two metres below us. I picked some green grass out of the fence at her elbow and explained that this was an easy way to estimate the maximum height of a recent flood. She was astonished to realise that such a small river could rise so far, so fast, flooding all the fields around us.

The biggest surprise of all is that we are surprised by floods. The first line of any book or lecture about flooding begins with the words 'a flood is a natural event'. Yet all too often we are surprised - and often unprepared.

How surprised are we? How prepared are we?

In the past two months Met Eireann tells us that December 2015 was one of the mildest on record in most areas and the wettest on record in parts of the West, South and Midlands. This deluge is estimated to have flooded around 250 homes - with a further 230 under threat. This is a terrible tragedy for these homeowners. There are few things worse than a flooded house - the water is not clean and everything needs replacement after a long wait for the drying out. It can feel even more depressing when your neighbours are flooded too, sympathy gets diluted pretty quickly.

But the hardship for these families and their communities must be put in perspective. We have around two million houses in Ireland, 250 of these flooded in the wettest winter on record. The BBC estimates that over 16,000 houses were flooded in the UK by the same weather - or four times more flooded homes per capita than Ireland! Perhaps we have started to get something right?

Many are convinced that every flood plain is built on. It is certainly true that some mistakes were made by modern developments. Aerial photographs of flooding almost always show the same results. The flooding is mostly affecting new developments at the urban edge while the old town sits high and dry in the middle. The newer developments were built in ignorance of floods that only happen every 100 years. Contrary to popular opinion, every town and county plan in Ireland is now subject to an intense technical examination before being adopted. Lands that flood cannot be zoned for buildings or developments that are vulnerable to flooding - or that could make flooding worse elsewhere. The assessment of flood risk is based on a huge exercise by the OPW to publish detailed maps of flood potential for every part of Ireland.

Actual floods are being monitored and measured and the results are confirming that these estimates are very accurate. This is where the next surprise comes from.

All over Ireland these maps are challenged, often very, very forcibly by landowners and representatives who fear that this information will devalue land and stymie development. Many complain the publication of these maps can make their house impossible to insure or sell.

It is not enough for laws to change, behaviour and attitudes have to change too. This often needs political leadership - involving the courage to face up to facts.

The 250 flooded houses are still 250 too many flooded houses and only a heart of stone would not want to help these families. Yet recent weeks have seen the emergence of flint realism with senior politicians beginning to say, for the first time, that some families may need to be relocated. This is the start of the acceptance of the inevitability of natural flooding. This is the start of the real cure.

But if the public purse is to bear this cost - it can only be done once. We must do nothing to encourage, or facilitate, this mistake reoccurring. Experience in many, many other countries strongly suggests that land-use planning will not succeed in preventing unwise building in flood plains. Flood planning has got to be reinforced by flood insurance rules.

This means that instead of adopting opposing roles - as seems to be happening currently - government agencies and the insurance industry need to work together. The aim of their work should be to provide long-term certainty, widely publicised, about where to avoid building because of flooding.

This may involve trading short-term pain by insurers paying claims for long term certainty that there will be little or no additional exposure to risk because of vigilance by planners. A further aim of working together would be to produce even more accurate flood maps - to avoid excessively 'broad-brush' risk assessment and weighting by insurance companies. In a short term this could lead to lower premiums for everyone - because of lower risk - and fewer people with 'uninsurable' homes.

To conclude, we are starting to make solid progress dealing with flooding.

We must certainly continue to do everything that we can to help our flooded fellow citizens, but we must not lose sight of the bigger aim of keeping people out of harm's way. This will involve combining good planning and smart, fair insurance - so that flooding will gradually change from being a tragedy to an unsurprising inconvenience.

Conor Skehan lectures on Rural Planning in DIT and is a disaster-risk adviser to the UN

Sunday Independent

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