Farm Ireland

Sunday 21 January 2018

Economic view: Solving the flood crisis will take decades

Flooded fields and roads near Athlone, Co Westmeath.
Flooded fields and roads near Athlone, Co Westmeath.
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

IT's the 140,000 farming families across the country who are among those worst-affected by the recent flooding crisis.

No group in society loses as much when rivers burst their banks and fields are inundated with water.

Not only do they face the loss of their livelihoods as land, livestock and equipment is lost, their family homes often suffer major structural damage which can take thousands of euro of make right.

Many farmers looking at their ruined land and homes, some older and without families, may find the burden too much to bear, and the prospect of rebuilding again too much to countenance.

Some may be thinking dark thoughts, and it's these people which need urgent support and some glimmer of hope that their lands and homes will be protected.

For many, it's not the first time they have been forced to re-build. Ask any farmer living along the River Shannon and other major waterways about flooding, and all will have a tale to tell.

Indeed, documents from the Office of Public Works (OPW) show that farmers have repeatedly warned about summer flooding along the Shannon callows, the area between Athlone Weir and Meelick and Victoria locks.

This area includes semi-natural grassland managed by individual landowners and the IFA accepts that the natural flood plain within the callows is liable to winter flooding.

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But it has repeatedly highlighted problems with late summer flooding which can cause major damage to crops.

Flooding in this period has been "significantly greater" in the last decade, one report says, but notes that the incidence of late summer flooding in the two decades from 1942 to 1961 was higher.

But whatever about the worst periods, there is an urgency to find solutions especially as climate change takes hold.

Climate change

The science tells us this is already happening, and we can expect more of the same extreme weather conditions and increased rainfall which caused such utter devastation this winter, but also in 2009 and previous years.

This is the new reality, and there will be consequences for agriculture and farming unless flood defences are installed, and land protected.

Government has a number of priorities, including maintaining economic growth and job creation in an uncertain and competitive world, but there's longer-term challenges too.

Ireland faces an enormous task to futureproof the country and make it flood resilient. There isn't one county where works are not required.

And while money is being spent, it's not enough.

Some €232m on major works in the last decade, and some €33m by local authorities since 2010 on minor schemes ranging from flood studies to constructing walls and bridges, completing drainage works and installing pumps.

Another €450m is allocated out to 2021, but with 300 parts of the country considered to be the most at risk, that budget will be stretched.

The focus for investment is likely to be on built-up urban centres with large populations.

Rural Ireland, with a smaller population, will be considered a lower priority.

It all means that solving the flood crisis will take decades, and will require commitment from successive governments over the coming years, whether left, right or centre in their outlook.

These administrations should not be allowed to shirk their responsibilities in relation on funding for ongoing maintenance either.

The issue is above politics, and the country has never been in a better place to make the right decisions.

Since 2011, the Office of Public Works has been working on so-called CFRAM studies (Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management) for the country's major river catchments.

They are near completion, meaning for the first time we know the challenges the face, and the scale of the works required.

The solutions are not yet known, and will require public consultation and detailed planning.

They are likely to include a mix of hard and soft solutions, such as planting trees, pruning vegetation and large-scale engineering works.

It also means a ban on building on flood plains. It's not that large tracts of land will be rendered sterile.

It's that homes and buildings will no longer be allowed on these flood plains, but they can be used for farming.

The alternative is further chaos, more flooding, more ruined lives and more hand-wringing as to how this was allowed to happen, again.

Paul Melia is the Irish Independent's Environment Editor

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