THE tides come in, the tides go out. That doesn't change. And sometimes strong winds blow and make the waves bigger; and we always have rain, swelling the rivers.
We have, in short, always had "weather" in this country. Why do you think we talk so much about it, and now more than ever? Because the winds are getting stronger off the coast, making the waves grow bigger more often, and the rain is falling heavily more often, swelling the rivers, which spread out into the fields and make mini lakes. And when there are no fields, they spread out into the towns, especially if, as in the case of Limerick, they meet an incoming exceptionally high tide whipped up by the strong winds. In Cork, the wind-driven tide alone is enough to cause chaos. Both cities have long known what it's like to be flooded. But they had the dubious comfort of knowing that at least it happened infrequently, because the factors that caused flooding relatively rarely came together. Not anymore.
Now the winds are stronger and more frequent. Now the heavy rainfall is pretty consistent and is becoming a dominant feature of our weather, especially in the winter and spring. And worse – it is almost certainly here to stay. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is in the process of publishing a massive raft of documented evidence, the most interesting part of which, from an Irish point of view, is a new atlas of global and regional climate projections with maps of temperature and precipitation (all things rainy) for 35 regions of the world. When it becomes available next month, it should clarify the future weather patterns we can expect in this region.
Of course, it isn't just the big cities and towns built beside the sea or at the mouth of a river that are affected. There are also the seaside towns and there are fishing towns and villages and those who live beside big rivers – as many as 300 locations, according to the current estimate – with not one of our 26 counties exempt. And many of the people who live on the coast make their living from the very fact that they are coastal. They cannot all be expected to up sticks and move to higher, dryer ground – we're not China! The whole coast of this little country is affected. And all around Ireland, people farm and build their homes at the very edge of the coast. So gradually whole fields are made useless or washed away and homes face being made unsafe, then uninhabitable, and then destroyed.
Yes, I afraid it is our old friend, Climate Change, at work here. Climate Change is real. It has been for a long time now. World conferences have been held on an almost yearly basis to try to find a way of dealing with it. But dealing with it costs money and those who could do most to alleviate the problem – those with the most money – have always shied away from actually doing anything about it. There are very few Climate Change deniers left. In Ireland, they have probably switched over to denying any possible health risk from pylons. But worldwide, virtually everyone acknowledges there is a problem. Unfortunately, like St Augustine, they vow to be good, just not yet. China and India, for example, will "swing round to compliance", as a charity boss might tell the Public Accounts Committee, but
not before they have a chance to catch up with the West's Industrial Revolution, and they don't believe they can do that with clean energy. And if they won't play ball, why should Europe and the US?
That's about it in a seashell. Here in Ireland, we have to deal with the consequences of that inaction. That means big projects to create durable flood defences wherever necessary and practicable, but also we need to do the small stuff, like ensuring that every drain in the country doesn't automatically become blocked whenever there is heavy rain.
But we will have to make hard choices too. We must identify what we want to save. Obviously these will be the centres of population around the coast or on the Shannon. Yes, we have always built on flood plains, and we shouldn't do it any more. But the houses are there and the people are there and we can't just write them off.
However, it is beyond reason that the entire coastline could be protected from the elements. This is bad news for many coastal dwellers and those in proximity to rivers above a certain size, especially the un-drained Shannon. But sometimes you cannot fight nature, you just have to let it take its course.
Meanwhile, of course, there is need for the immediate remedial work that is always necessary after any natural disaster. And this is a disaster. It's not every day the Red Cross has to launch a "humanitarian" fund to help Ireland.
As well as small businesses which have seen their premises wrecked, farmers, for example, who have seen good land turned to dead ground that will be useless for months until re-seeded and growth returns, will need help. But the initial €10m – and now a further €15m which the Government has promised – is earmarked for damage to private dwellings only, despite the fact that many small business owners could now be destitute because their business premises were uninsurable by virtue of their location. They didn't just decide not to get insurance. They are not at fault, so they deserve some relief too.
But it is when making the submission to the EU for much greater relief funds, that Brian Hayes and Phil Hogan and Simon Coveney and maybe even Richard Bruton need to present a common front for something a lot more substantial and a lot more lasting than even the €250m the Government has promised to spend over the next five years on flood defences – according to Brian Hayes, we are talking billions, not millions.
In Ireland we have to recognise what we have not accepted up till now. That severe flooding is not a temporary nuisance that occurs only occasionally and is a problem to be managed rather than solved. The time for an Irish solution to an Irish problem is past. Putting the finger in the dyke won't work anymore. It's time to get the finger out.