Climate is changing faster than our planning policies, and our homes can't wait

After witnessing the wreckage of once-in-a-lifetime flood events that killed hundreds in Europe this year, Minister Patrick O'Donovan came away with one thought; could it happen here?
Climate is changing faster than our planning policies, and our homes can't wait

A view of destroyed houses in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany in July 2021. 

This never happened here before. The familiar words I hear when I visit a community that is trying to pick up the pieces following a flood somewhere in Ireland. The exact same was said to me last week when I visited communities in Western Germany and Eastern Belgium, which were hit by devastating floods in the summer of 2021. What on the face of it was a short-lived burst of torrential rain, left long-term and heart-breaking consequences for the areas that were ripped apart by the so-called ‘extreme weather event’.

More than 200 people tragically lost their lives between Germany and Belgium. What I was told was that in some cases, they literally had no chance. The water came so fast, and with such ferocity, they couldn’t escape. The Wallonia Region around Liege in Belgium was particularly badly hit. Meeting the city officials in Liege and the regional administration in Namur, it was clear to me that the scale of this tragedy was like nothing that any comparable region in Europe had experienced recently.

Two girls carry a bucket after dumping household debris in a pile after flooding in Vaux-sous-Chevremont, Belgium on July 24, 2021.
Two girls carry a bucket after dumping household debris in a pile after flooding in Vaux-sous-Chevremont, Belgium on July 24, 2021.

A total of 39 people dead. 100,000 people impacted. 50,000 properties affected. 11,000 vehicles destroyed. 385,000 tonnes of waste generated. Public infrastructure like water pipes, bridges, roads, electricity, telecoms, broadband all destroyed. A public bill of almost €6bn and people’s lives turned upside down from what was a relatively short-lived burst of rainfall, that had catastrophic effects.

As I stood on one of the quaysides in Liege that has been rebuilt, it was hard to comprehend what the peaceful River Ourthe that flows through the city centre on its way to meet the Meuse, could be capable of doing to this beautiful city. But it wrecked everything in front of it and left a trail of destruction that destroyed lives and devastated families and communities behind it.

Coming away terrified from it, I asked myself what would we do in Ireland if something like this happened, and how would we cope? And, could it happen here in Ireland?

It was clear to me that the sheer scale of the avalanche of water that hit the region in that short time, not only shocked as it flattened, but it also stretched. It stretches every fibre of public administration and their ability to respond, but they did. And 12 months after they were devastated, they are still putting their lives back together.

The halls that served the hot meals have now all finished up, and most of the physical scars, including the closed section of motorways which was a store for debris out of the destroyed homes of broken lives has seen its last clearance. But things will never be the same, because instead of the words, 'this never happened here before’, they are now asking, ‘will this happen again?'

The authorities told me that things would have been a lot worse only that the schools were closed for the summer, and many people were on holiday. Small consolation, but an important one, because it strikes to the fact that the numbers dead could have been so much higher. There but for the grace of God.

Debris of collapsed houses in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, Germany.
Debris of collapsed houses in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, Germany.

And I came away from Namur wondering about Ireland. So many places have been protected by the work of OPW and the local authorities over the last few years. But so many more have not. And for residents in these areas, weather forecasts are a nightly torment, a living nightmare.

‘Strong southerly winds, spring tides, swells, surges, waterlogging, abnormally low pressure...' —  the list of terms that people in some parts of the country hope they don't hear from TV or radio weather bulletins during the winter or the summer, because they know what it means. The now almost annual, if not more frequent than that, dose of flooding.

From the toilet first, or maybe in the front door this time. The entry points of the sewage laden swill that makes up flood waters is varied for the homes of Ireland that face flooding. Homes that have to take their place in the planning pecking order behind gravel beds, rushes, and weeds in an EU-led planning process that is failing the citizen. Over 20 years for some towns and still no let up from the psychological torture and trauma that wreaks havoc on Irish families, while the type of connection a phone charger has across Europe, is a priority, at least for some.

The suffering in silence continues for these families.

The hierarchy of what and who are to be protected and the length of time that it takes with all of the objections, delays, and everything else we face, is something that has fallen down the list of political priorities, not only in Ireland but in other EU states as well.

We’re told that climate change is a fact of life now, and it is. But reducing emissions alone will not protect those towns that feel abandoned to a hopeless future.

Drastic changes in the planning process in Ireland and in Europe are needed if climate adaptation is to mean anything for our communities

If it doesn’t, then abandonment has to become part of what we must consider, because hand wringing will not wash it for these communities.

Playing second fiddle, in many cases after several generations, to an unsympathetic EU directive, transposed into Irish Law that refuses and fails to recognise that the first function of any law is to protect citizens, is something our EU institutions must act on, and quickly.

Our climate is changing faster that our planning policies, and this means that the horrors that have been visited on places like the Ahr Valley and the basin of the Meuse, will become the norm across Europe, including here in Ireland.

This week fortunately we are marking the completion of a scheme in Douglas, in Cork. It now joins a long list of schemes in towns that have been delivered by OPW including - places like Craughwell, Clonmel, Ennis, Fermoy, Cappamore, Mallow, Bandon, Skibbereen, Waterford and so many more.

But there are so many more waiting for relief from the terrible mental anxiety that the weather forecast brings.

The question is for how long more will they and can they wait?

Patrick O’Donovan is the Minister of State for the Office of Public Works (OPW) in Ireland

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