Friday 6 December 2019

Trees and concrete will help reduce the flooding risk

There may be trouble ahead for established parties if European trends take hold. Above, Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits the home of Gertie Dunning in Carrickobreen, in Athlone, during the flooding. Photo: Steve Humphreys
There may be trouble ahead for established parties if European trends take hold. Above, Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits the home of Gertie Dunning in Carrickobreen, in Athlone, during the flooding. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

IT’s not the prospect of Dublin, London or another major city being submerged that will bring home the reality of how climate change and more frequent flood events will impact on us all.

It’s the barn or family home left abandoned and isolated in a rural field.

It’s the farmer left counting the cost of being forced to leave their land because it is almost permanently under water. It’s the potholed roads ignored by local authorities because making repeated repairs simply doesn’t make financial sense anymore.

It’s been an horrendous five weeks for thousands of families as they have battled, sometimes in vain, to save their homes from rising flood waters. At least 400 homes and 388 businesses have been affected, and it’s testament to the response of local authorities and other agencies that no lives have been lost.

But many of those workers will continue to operate pumps over the coming weeks to prevent further destruction of property. Roads will remain under water across Galway and other counties for the foreseeable future, and not until the waters recede will authorities be in a position to definitively state how much this disaster will cost.

Depressingly, the science tells us we can expect more of the same as climate change takes hold. More extreme weather events means more storms, more rainfall and more misery. Rising sea levels won’t help matters. We must begin planning now to adapt to the new reality. Waves lapping up O’Connell Street means we have left it too late.

Part of the problem is that we have repeatedly failed to spend money on flood defences, and have ignored the ongoing maintenance of drains and culverts needed to drain water from the land.

We have deforested large parts of the country and allowed over-grazing to occur. We have built in the wrong places, and ignored engineers and planners who warned that erecting homes on flood plains would cause problems down the line. The last point isn’t an historic issue, it remains a problem.

Since Flood Risk Management Guidelines took effect in 2009, three local authorities have been ordered to amend their development plans because they zoned land for development on areas at risk of flooding.

Limerick City and County Council was ordered as recently as last May to amend plans for lands in Adare; Cork County Council was told the same thing in April 2013, after lands in Midleton were earmarked for building; while Laois was ordered to change its development plan in December 2012 amid concern about lands in Mountmellick.

And while Taoiseach Enda Kenny may boast that the Government’s capital plan allocates more money for defences than that set aside in the previous 20 years, it’s a case of too little too late. While some €430m will be spent out to 2021, delivery of schemes already promised is running behind schedule.

The River Shannon has been a focus for politicians this week, with the announcement that a coordination group – with powers yet to be announced – will be established to help better manage the country’s largest river.

This isn’t a new concept. For 200 years there has been ongoing discussions about how to reduce flood risk, and OPW studies indicate late summer flooding in the last decade has been “significantly greater” than that experienced over the previous 40 years.

While farmers expect the river to flood during the winter, they are understandably concerned about flooding occurring during the summer months before crops are harvested.

The Shannon problem is complex and multi-faceted. It rises and falls slowly, meaning that homes and properties can remain under threat for weeks at a time.

And since you cannot tame nature, all the money in the world won’t solve our flooding problem on this great watercourse. Rivers will always burst their banks at some point or other, and engineers must ensure that whatever defences are installed don’t transfer the problem to another location.


Unfortunately, Irish Water’s plans to abstract water from the Shannon at Parteen Weir to supply the midlands, east and Dublin won’t save the day. The company plans to take some 330 million litres a day from Parteen, and while it seems a lot, it’s nothing compared with the flow currently being released by the ESB to prevent flooding downstream.

Some 470 cubic metres of water a second has been flowing through the weir in recent weeks – that’s around 40 billion litres of water a day. No amount of concrete is going to stop that.

The focus to date has been on ‘hard’ engineering solutions, but trees can play a vital role too.

Native species absorb and store water and provide flood protection, with experts suggesting that deep roots also provide channels to send the water deep underground, while the soil acts as a sponge. A national forestry campaign should be among the first measures taken by the Government to reduce risk.

It’s a pretty poor state of affairs when groups like the Church of Ireland feel the need to launch a flood relief appeal because the government of a developed country has failed to protect its citizens. That must change. The focus for all politicians should be less posturing, and more engagement. It’s only a matter of time before lives are lost due to flooding. More foresight and sustained investment is needed now.

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