Tuesday 27 September 2016

Succession of storms shows we cannot put off setting up a flood defence force

Published 05/01/2016 | 02:30

'If we are serious about dealing with the terrible damage for thousands of people across the country, then competing interests must co-operate with a new flood defence force'. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
'If we are serious about dealing with the terrible damage for thousands of people across the country, then competing interests must co-operate with a new flood defence force'. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

The unwelcome Christmas visitors returned. We were caught on the hop again. They kicked up a storm and left the place in a mess, just like the last time. You'd think we'd have learnt our lesson; every winter they swing by. Clodagh, Desmond, Eva and Frank arrived in quick succession.

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There was no time to clean up after Abigail and Barney. Now stay the hell away Gertrude, we're not ready for you, either.

The blame game for the flooding is well documented by now - years of inertia, bad planning, departmental incompetence and climate change. But let's face it, we can't control rainfall and the annual deluges are no longer an exception.

The relentless storms are to be expected and we have to face the reality that climate change is going to play havoc with our built environment.

Flooding destroys businesses and homes, causing massive losses to insurance companies.

Which means it is imperative that the insurance industry and government agencies lead the way on preventive action, through research, funding and implementation.

More obvious than ever is the fact that we need a dedicated flood defence force, not just a national co-ordination group and the Civil Defence to come out and mop up the flood water.

A flood defence force should be a national institution, without political interference.

Our geographical location puts us in the frontline for the onslaught of Atlantic storms.

There is EU funding to help us to deal with this hazard. But at the rate government departments change and national agencies compete, the cohesion required to override competing interests has never been in place.

If we are serious about dealing with the abominable damage for thousands of people across the country, then competing interests must co-operate with a new flood defence force.

Some water courses fall within the jurisdictions of two county councils. And then there's the interests of Inland Fisheries Ireland, ESB, Inland Waterways Ireland, Coillte, Irish Water, special areas of conservation and private ownership to be taken into account.

Dredging, widening, planting, damming, re-settling, funding sources - all will be contentious, but each solution must be addressed based on the balance of convenience. There is a case that the ESB could take Ardnacrusha off the grid for three months of the year and release the dam waters intermittently rather than waiting for the overflow at Parteen Weir and its consequent impact on local villages.

It won't be easy overcoming the mass of litigation that arises with anything to do with land ownership in Ireland, but if compulsory purchase orders can be made for roadways and pylons, they can be made for flood prevention and the greater common good.

The widening of water courses in certain parts of the country would mean farmers have to yield up some river banks.

The consolidation of river banks could be improved by tree planting.

Given the frequency of severe weather and the scale of the devastation, it is quite clear that we need one national flood institution.

In the boom, our topography changed dramatically. The motorway system across the island has created thousands of acres of new uplands. However small the gradient, it still means a faster roll-off of water into culverts, deepening gulches and causing flooding of the rivers close to low-lying farms and houses.

As I drove to Stonyford in Kilkenny on New Year's Eve, surface water had built up on the motorway, but the streets of the picturesque villages of Graiguenamanagh, Inistioge and Bennettsbridge were like canoeing courses. So, an obvious source of funding for any flood defence force should be from road tolls. We have the expertise for flood management in bucket loads. Dr Michael Hartnett, an engineer at the Environmental Change Institute at NUI, Galway, has developed a flood model which can pinpoint the degree of flooding and when it will occur.

From a local area planning viewpoint, the model can predict the flow and velocity of floods and determine where sea walls and embankments are best deployed.

His model can give vital information on flood scenarios and the areas and specific times that are likely to be affected.

It can show individual streets and can identify houses that should be evacuated first.

Which is all very well for existing towns and villages, but for the one-off houses affected, some assistance in rebuilding on elevated ground or an elevated design, may be the solution.

Unfortunately, the cost of flood defence in smaller localities far outweighs the cost of re-locating individuals to safer ground. Extreme measures have been taken in the Netherlands, where small settlements have been moved to safer ground.

This will all be forgotten in a month when the election posters and promises stack up. But the unwelcome guests will return and whatever government leads the country into Easter 2016, it must be one that is committed to real national interests.

Deirdre Conroy is an urban and building conservation specialist Twitter @DeirdreConroyIE

Irish Independent

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