Tackling floods: Our Government should follow the Dutch lead

It’s over 60 years since the Dutch accepted the challenges that flooding brought. It’s time our Government did likewise, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.  

The country’s drones are providing us with some great images of landscapes altered after several weeks of torrential rains but at ground level there is little in the way of beauty.

While it is a case of hats off for those who have been battling to save their businesses and homes one has to wonder at the lack of proper planning for events which are surely now foreseeable.

It is well over a decade since our former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, stood forlornly for a photographer, tweed hat on head, his wellies knee deep in water beside the banks of the river Tolka in his North Dublin constituency.

Those with even longer memories will recall flooding, with loss of life, in Ballsbridge and Bray, in the wake of Hurricane Charlie, back in 1986.

For many farmers, even in those days, the loss of fields for lengthy periods to the elements was an unfortunate fact of life.

At the time, however, people could still subscribe to the comforting idea that this was a ‘once in a lifetime’ event. This clearly is no longer the case. The inundation of Irish towns, low-lying cities and farmland is now a regular occurrence, yet time after time governments in these islands are caught on the hop.

It is worth recalling how our near neighbours, the Dutch have tackled the problem of flooding since the great North Sea disaster back in 1953, when more than 1,800 of its people perished, along with more than 300 Britons.

The Dutch government, aware that around 60% of its people lived below sea level, built up an extraordinary system of barrages, dykes and levees, fortifications which have to date ensured that the events of two generations ago have yet to be repeated.

The battle goes on. Climate change brings with it the prospect of rising sea levels and more extreme rainfall events.

In a very real sense, the Netherlands is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to flooding.

The Dutch are a pragmatic bunch and they have continued to review the way they tackle this ongoing challenge.

The financial commitment from a country of 17m citizens is enormous, running into several hundreds of millions of euro each year.

Alongside this, one can witness a commitment of considerable management expertise.

In 2006, the Dutch set up what they call a ‘room for the river’ agency backed by a budget of over €2bn.

The country’s four main rivers flooded on a number of occasions in the 1990s, on one occasion forcing the evacuation of a couple of hundred thousand people. Much of the funds have been devoted to the widening of rivers and side channels.

According to a report in the Guardian newspaper published in early 2014, the Irish Government has shown interest in emulating this approach. Clearly, however, the Government, here, absorbed in the task of securing economic recovery, has moved too slowly.

Funding is one issue. A number of towns such as Fermoy have benefited from investment in flood defences and these appear to have withstood the pressures imposed on them in recent weeks. However, the people of Bandon have clearly a different story to tell, with delays to work there attributable, in part, to delays due to a legal challenge.

During the Celtic Tiger years, it was accepted that fast-track planning should be introduced so as to facilitate the putting in place of vital infrastructure. Clearly, this fast-track approach needs to be applied to flood control and other key aspects of local infrastructure.

The EU needs to play its part in freeing up local players to embark on river maintenance, even if there is a risk of disturbance to local ecosystems. The recent Dutch experience, however, proves that protection of the environment can go hand in hand with flood prevention.

Under the new Dutch model, farmland and even certain housing is being sacrificed as part of an effort to protect larger human settlements.

While memories of the recent flood events remain sharp nationwide, it is time for the authorities to grasp some political nettles.

Individual landowners will simply have to accept the reality of compulsory purchase orders accompanied by the payment of a fair market price. Residents of housing estates on flood plains may have to face up to the fact that their places of habitation cannot be maintained over the long term.

Our local authorities have been starved of financial resources since the abolition of household rates following the 1977 general election.

Over the years, there has been a loss of management capacity in many local authorities, a dearth of expertise that became all too evident during the Celtic Tiger years, when building inspections at local level all but ground to a halt.

Neglect of maintenance of public spaces is a feature of Irish life across the board. Local councils have axed hedge and grass cutters and reduced cleaning activity. This needs to be reversed.

Economists regularly highlight the lack of public investment since 2007 in Ireland. But ahead of an electoral contest, politicians find it hard to resist vested interests pressing for hikes in salaries and tax reductions.

After years of austerity, such pressures are as great as the flood tides lapping against Irish properties.

A greater emphasis on the proper prioritising of public investment is also needed.

The Government, and its predecessor, to be fair, have recognised the challenges posed by climate change, over development and events such as El Nino.

In 2009, the Fianna Fáil-Green Coalition drew up plans for 300 areas at risk of flooding.

Some €430m has been spent on flood relief in the past five years and some towns have felt the benefits.

The minister in charge of the Office of Public Works, Simon Harris, has promised a doubling in the spend. But an overhaul of management and institutions is required.

A single agency should be established and all state bodies, including Bord na Móna, need to be brought into line as part of a concerted effort to address the issue. Public procurement processes need to be simplified and new management talent introduced. in this regard, the ongoing saga of Irish Water will be worth studying. After a terrible start, there are signs that the agency is settling down.

The Government, or its successor, could sensibly start by hiring in some Dutch experts as they embark on the process of ramping up spending on projects designed to ensure that provincial Ireland never again has to endure the dirty baptism of recent weeks.


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