Concrete flood walls will only be a barrier between us and Cork City

Walling the River Lee will not contain flooding and will destroy Cork’s unique offering as a place to live, writes Victoria White.

Concrete flood walls will only be a barrier between us and Cork City

Former head of forecasting at Met Éireann, Gerald Fleming, will today tell assembled surveyors at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium that past patterns are no longer a reliable guide to future weather.

“It is probable that things will be very different, and possible that they will be more severe,” he told RTÉ this week.

He asks the billion-dollar question: “How do we make sure that we keep ourselves and our families safe?” That question is exercising the minds of people all over Ireland, but nowhere more than in Cork City.

No other city in Ireland, or possibly in Europe, has suffered such extreme flooding in recent years.

The images from the past decade are enduring: the lone swimmer on Oliver Plunkett St, Grand Parade, knee-deep in muck, UCC awash...

Terrifying images, particularly if you believe Gerald Fleming and are open to the possibility that such floods can no longer be relied upon to come no more than once in a century. They may become frequent and be worse.

Perhaps wanting to build a wall between ourselves and an unquantifiable danger is a natural reaction.

US President Donald Trump created a successful electoral campaign around such an instinct, after all.

The Office of Public Works is proposing to protect the city of Cork from flooding by constructing reinforced concrete walls on top of the 17th, 18th, and 19th-century historic quay walls or by replacing and covering them. The works will stretch for over 10km. In addition, they are proposing 46 pump chambers to pump rainwater into the river.

But walling the River Lee will not contain it and will destroy Cork’s unique offering as a place to live and visit and in which to invest.

I know the Office of Public Works’ proposed flood walls will not work, because the OPW themselves say so.

The CFRMS report (2014) says that the walls proposal would be “over-topped” in 2070 in a “mid-range” severity future scenario, but which in a “high end” future scenario would be “overtopped” in 2049.

So if things turn out badly on the climate front — and there is every indication they will — we risk spending €140m (Save Cork City say €300m) walling the River Lee to keep the city safe for about 25 years from the time the walls are built to the time they are over-topped.

This is not serious planning for serious scenarios. The water could be edging over the parapets before the National Planning Framework has run its course. Good luck to the planners, in attracting businesses and investors into the city centre to make Cork the second city much vaunted in the plan.

And that’s to leave aside entirely the psychology of the city. The point of Cork is its relationship with the Lee.

I feel I am walking on water when I come to Cork. There aren’t many cities in which you can walk away from the river and meet it again in front of you. There aren’t many cities with “islands” and hump-backed bridges and magnificent quays clamourous with gulls.

God, the place is stunning.

I look on the CIÉ bus station and the blank side wall of the Opera House as relics of a past time, when the cities turned their backs on rivers. It’s clear to any visitor that the city’s future depends on the closeness of its relationship with the Lee.

Putting a flood wall between the citizen and the river will destroy the city it’s meant to protect. Interaction with a body of water has a measurable psychological effect on people; somewhere deep in our hearts, we know we sprang from water and we know we rely on freshwater for our very survival.

The economic benefits of this psychological wellbeing are measurable, too. Last year, I took part in an experiment that measured the benefits of Dublin’s River Dodder on local residents. People spoke lyrically of finding peace beside it and of watching it mirror the sky.

The River Dodder is tiny by comparison with the Lee and yet, with climate change, it presents similar challenges, which have been met with similar responses.

Below Ballsbridge, the river is now walled, inaccessible, and, in parts, viewed only through small, dirty windows.

Further up-river, the Dodder Action Group is campaigning for modern flood-management methods pioneered in Holland, and grounded in “making room for the river.” Clearly, there’s no argument for making Cork City a flood plain, but the Save Cork City group has evolved a detailed plan. This involves using flood plains up-river to lessen the river’s flow.

A major infrastructural response — a tidal barrier — is an unavoidable part of keeping Cork safe. The OPW itself makes the point that a tidal barrier at Monkstown and Marloag Point would make financial sense by 2050, in a bad climate scenario.

Save Cork City is arguing for a tidal barrier at Little Island. But location is less important than timing.

It is insane to destroy the city with tidal walls, while limping towards a deadline by which a tidal barrier will have to be constructed anyway — 2050 is a heartbeat away. How many businesses will be lost to Cork’s historic heart, as the water inches up against the floodwalls, threatening to thunder down on the citizens?

UCD researchers have branded the potential loss of Cork’s historic quay walls, and the damage to Cork’s world-beating Georgian river-scape, as the greatest planned destruction of our heritage in the history of the State.

Save Cork City speaks of the potential loss of Cork’s river landscape as “the final tipping point in the Cork’s future”. You sense the passion and idealism of a new generation of Corkonians and their fear of being overtaken by an outdated vision of what the city is.

They also fear their local politicians will be tempted towards that outdated vision by the pot of money that is on offer for flood works and associated schemes. The Morrison’s Island proposal offers €6m for flood works, a board walk, a viewing platform and plazas. It is to be voted on by the council on May 15 and Save Cork City is vigorously campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

Morrison’s Island is among the least offensive and least obstructive stages within the Walls project. It is, however, the thin end of the wedge.

It is typical of councils, which fear public disapproval, to proceed in stages, through Part 8 planning acts.

A ‘No’ vote from the council would at least mean a pause for reflection, before voting for the final catastrophe.

I recognise in Save Cork City’s Proposal for Cork the same urgency I remember when my parents marched in Dublin to save Wood Quay.

That battle was lost, but Dublin revived around the battlefield. In Cork, the battlefield is the city itself.

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