Monday 19 February 2018

There will be floods

Vast tracts of land were covered in water this week and climate change experts warned that, with more intense and frequent storms, the situation will only get worse in coming years. Have we a plan, or are we just muddling through?

Air Corps handout photo of the river Suck at Ballinasloe after Storm Desmond hit the area over the weekend. story WEATHER Floods Ireland. Photo: Airman Jamie Martin/Air Corps/PA Wire.
Air Corps handout photo of the river Suck at Ballinasloe after Storm Desmond hit the area over the weekend. story WEATHER Floods Ireland. Photo: Airman Jamie Martin/Air Corps/PA Wire.
Air Corps handout photo of River Shannon flowing through Athlone after Storm Desmond hit the area over the weekend. Photo: Airman Jamie Martin/Air Corps/PA Wire
Homes in Athlone, Co Westmeath on Thursday.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The almost Biblical floods that covered vast tracts of land and swamped towns this week, from Cork across the Midlands and West, and up to Donegal, demonstrated two outstanding characteristics of this country.

On the positive side, there was unrivalled community spirit as neighbours went out of their way to help each other.

Hundreds of volunteers from the Civil Defence, often unsung heroes of these emergencies, worked day and night as the flood waters rose and deluged homes, rescuing elderly people and piling up sandbags in a gallant but sometimes futile attempt to save properties. Farmers drove into nearby towns with slurry tanks to help pump water away. Up to 300 army troops were deployed.

But, at times, it all seemed in vain. Nature was determined to take its course, and in villages such as Craughwell, Co Galway, it seemed to be winning; at one point, all that could be seen of the streetscape in Craughwell were the traffic lights that continued changing as a gushing river ran through the village.

No amount of goodwill could conceal another salient fact about this country - the lack of long-term planning in recent decades by the authorities in an era when climate change makes such severe weather events appear inevitable. "The system for dealing with floods is overly complex," says Dr Kieran Hickey, a UCC geographer and author of Five Minutes to Midnight: Ireland and climate change.

"There are too many competing agencies - often with different goals and strategies. And it is run by politicians who are only interested in the next election."

The scene in Crossmolina, Co Mayo, in recent days was typical of scenes in towns across the country as a torrent of water surged down the street after the River Deel broke its banks. It started early in the morning last Saturday. Eventually, boats could paddle across the bridge where cars usually go.

For supermarket owner and local councillor Michael Loftus, the scene was depressingly familiar, as the water surged into his shop up to a foot high. Elsewhere in the town it was at chest level.

Back in 1989, a similar deluge hit Crossmolina, and homes and businesses were submerged. There have been other floods since, including one last month.

"We were promised in 1989 that something would be done about it, but nothing has been done. The Office of Public Works has sat on its hands for years," says Michael.

A quarter of a century ago, Crossmolina and other towns were promised help. But the extravagant pledges seemed to recede with the flood waters; protection works are still promised, but have not been built, even decades after the effects of climate change were already widely anticipated.

Plans for relief for Bandon in Co Cork were likewise promised after floods in 2009, but the works have been delayed by a typical bureaucratic legal log-jam over tendering, and won't be finished until 2018 at the earliest.

The bad news, according to climatologists, is that the floods are only likely to get worse as climate change sends blasts of warm, moist air across the Atlantic, crashing into the mountains across the west coast, wreaking havoc.

Early in the week, NUI Maynooth lecturer Dr Conor Murphy reckoned the latest storm was caused by an "atmospheric river" of moisture that travelled from the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr Murphy, who specialises in the effects of climate change, has studied storms in Ireland over the past 140 years and has seen a growth in intensity.

"That is consistent with what we would expect with climate change," he says.

A report for the Office of Public Works last year predicted that up to 300 areas in cities, towns and villages are at "significant" risk of flooding in the future.

UCC's Dr Hickey says the amounts spent on flood defences now are paltry, even if they are increasing.

"We tend to suffer from a terrible short-termism. Flood defences will be flavour of the month for the next few weeks, but once the election is over, it will fade into the background. It tends to be reactive rather than proactive."

The Irish Farmers' Association estimated that up to 40,000 acres along the Shannon were flooded by the middle of this week, leaving many farmhouses stranded on islands.

Sheds, barns and homes were inundated. Some farm houses were like lake isle fortresses, precariously close to a new shore line.

Of course, there is nothing new about massive floods filling the centre of the country in mid-winter.

"The Shannon has always been a nightmare," says Kieran Hickey.

"If you look at the historical records, even back to medieval times, you will see that it was a huge, impassable river system with lots of channels and swampy areas.

"That is why, going back centuries, people travelling across the country went along the Esker Riada - the ridges on higher ground that went from east to west. They were avoiding the flooded areas."

Politicians have been promising to drain the Shannon since time immemorial. But there are complexities to the river system and competing interests.

Pinpointing the causes of the floods has become something of a blame game.

Environmentalists blame farmers for draining land, and not allowing it to absorb moisture.

The farmers themselves are furious with the "green lobby" for stopping the clearing of rivers.

There is common agreement, however, that modern urban planners and developers, particularly during the Celtic Tiger, left aside some of the time-honoured rules for keeping buildings dry.

Our predecessors in ancient times seemed to have had an intuitive historical sense of the places that would flood - or perhaps it was just common sense. They built on high ground.

In the harrowing footage of army troops sandbagging around homes, and householders and shopkeepers sweeping away floors of water, there were no old churches and few ancient structures.

But there were plenty of Celtic Tiger-era car parks and gleaming shopping centres, built at a time when computerised models of areas that were likely to flood should have been available.

"I remember talking to an old farmer who told me that you should never build where people haven't built before, because you may be flooded. That is sound advice," says Dr Hickey.

"I have dealt with people who were badly flooded out in 2009, who had been sold land that was unfit for habitation."

But even old cities were built in places unsuited to the elements. Dr Hickey says Cork city has always flooded, describing it as "the New Orleans of Europe".

In building on flood plains, some developers, and the planners who were supposed to oversee them, may simply have been short-sighted. But Jonathan Cooper, a flooding specialist with JBA consulting, puts it a lot more bluntly: "I think it was just down to blind greed."

"In the post-war era, there was a demand for housing, and flat land was cheaper to build on, and there were a lot of mistakes as a result," he says.

With the cost of flood defences so high, the authorities will face some difficult choices in the coming years. They will inevitably choose to protect areas of high population or valuable infrastructure.

Some believe that there should be what is termed "a strategic retreat" in some areas, where the costs of keeping out the forces of nature are simply too high.

"There may be some areas where there may have to be a change of land use from residential to low-vulnerability industrial buildings, because the battle against flooding will be too costly," says Cooper.

"That is coming down the tracks, and all these storms are waking us up to that eventuality. But politically, it is a hot potato."

There may be 300 areas at risk of flooding, but a protection scheme is not possible for all of them.

Cooper says a priority list will have to be drawn up, but it may take 20 or 30 years to complete.

Dr Hickey says it will be extremely difficult to move people away from places of high flood risk.

"In some other countries they may have moved whole settlements. Irish people are so tied to property and land that it is almost impossible to get them to move."

It noticeable this week that some of the areas with flood protection works - including Fermoy, Clonmel and Ennis - were not hit badly. But there are no guarantees, even with modern flood-protection works.

In Cumbria, UK rainfall records were smashed during Storm Desmond and flood defences in towns such as Carlisle, Cockermouth and Keswick where overwhelmed.

"You cannot prevent all flooding. It's just not possible," says Dr Hickey.

"The severity of the rainfall that they had in Cumbria would swamp virtually anything you do, and you can't prevent it."

Some of the floods are impossible to prevent but consultant Cooper says measures can be taken to alleviate the effects.

"It is not just a matter of building high concrete walls along rivers," he says.

There may have to be a support system for farmers who allow their land to absorb the rain in certain areas to prevent fast run-off into rivers, Cooper adds.

"In built-up areas, we need to have more permeable surfaces, so that water can be absorbed back into the ground rather than go into rivers."

Modern planners are encouraging marshy swales and ponds to take in the water, and discouraging paved-over driveways.

This week's emergency showed that, for many householders, the threat of flooding is almost inevitable.

They may only fight it by being extremely alert, using flood guards on doors and entrances - valves that stop the drains being infiltrated - and air bricks that allow a building to breathe, but keep out water during floods.

The effects of chronic flooding were brought home to the residents of the Blackrocks nursing home in Foxford, Co Mayo.

The fire brigade, ambulance service, Gardai and the Civil Defence had to join in an emergency evacuation, as the site was almost completely surrounded by water.

The clean-up will continue in the coming weeks, but the populations in flood-hit areas will have to be prepared for further emergencies.

Dr Conor Murphy says: "It's difficult to attribute one single event to climate change but there is an expectation is that we will see more of these severe storms in the future."

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