Fighting the flood must be a priority

FOLLOWING a weekend in which the city she represents was swamped with flood water, Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan said the devastation — and what happens in the future — would have to be an “absolute priority for the Government”.

Her reaction was raw. She had seen first-hand what she described as “unprecedented” flooding in Limerick — the Shannon and Abbey rivers had never reached the levels they hit over the weekend. Whole estates of houses were left submerged.

However, the reality is that, for many parts of the country, these flooding incidents are no longer unprecedented — they are happening all too frequently. Coastal flooding has ripped into Galway and Clare repeatedly in recent years, while parts of Cork City and county have experienced significant tidal and/or fluvial (river) flooding every year.

According to Met Éireann, events of the last few weeks have not been typical. Severe storms have combined with extremely high tides to whip up water levels. The two factors rarely combine to such devastating effect.

However, looking to the future, the weather forecaster’s senior climatologist Seamus Walsh expects that when they do combine, the implications can only get worse. He said sea levels will continue to rise by 2mm each year. However, he said the jury is out as to when the country will be battered by such severe storms — they could be a one in 30 or one in 50-year event.

Even in the absence of the severe storms, though, parts of the country which are plunged into high alert simply with heavy rainfall and a high tide. The threat level is only going to increase in the years to come.

Met Éireann has predicted that, by the middle of this century, rainfall could be as much as 14% higher than current levels. Combine that with higher tides and the impact could be devastating.

According to the Office of Public Works, international best practice dictates that “a more sustainable, planned, and risk-based approach” is required to deal with the scourge of flooding.

“This must address existing risk but also ensure that we avoid creating further risk through inappropriate development,” the OPW said yesterday.

“We are adopting a strategic approach that will allow for comprehensive assessment of the risks and consideration of the best possible options, both structural and non-structural, for dealing with those risks on a long term basis.”

It said the central element of its approach to river flooding was its ongoing Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) programme. This accounts for a significant percentage of the €50m the OPW has spent on programmes and studies dealing with nationwide flooding. However, the reality for many localities is that the fruits of the scheme are simply not being produced fast enough.

The programme’s website states that the studies and parallel activities associated with it are due to run until 2015. Implementation and review only happens from 2016.

Cork City and its environs are a prime example of how the long lead-in time is costing homeowners — and the State — for every month that implementation is delayed.

It is now seven years since submissions were sought for the River Lee CFRAM study. Two years later, the city experienced some of the worst flooding ever seen in Ireland, with thousands of homes and businesses damaged. Flooding in Cork has cost an estimated €100m since then.

Yet, while some remedial action has been taken — and the Lee CFRAM was published in February 2011 — the city is still not defended to even a moderately acceptable level.

Last month, the minister with responsibility for flood protection, Brian Hayes, said a major flood defence plan for Cork City — including proposals to install 1m-high barriers on the quay walls — will be ready before the end of the year and “shovel-ready” by 2015.

However, Gillian Keating, president of Cork Chamber, expressed the frustration of businesses that the project timelines indicate completion in 2017.

“It has been four years since the severe 2009 flooding event and Cork businesses are facing into a further four-year project timeline before Cork City is protected fully from potential future flooding,” said Ms Keating.

“Cork businesses require that these works are prioritised and implemented as soon as possible. Yesterday’s flooding, once again demonstrates the critically and seriousness of solving this continuing issue.”

Last month, engineering experts at University College Cork revealed that 1m tonnes of sand had been washed away from Rossbeigh, Co Kerry, in a week. That was in addition to the estimated 8m tonnes that had disappeared since the sand dunes were first breached by the sea in December 2008. There are now real fears of flooding to homes and land that had always been protected by the dunes.

According to the OPW, the coastal erosion risk along the entire national coastline has been surveyed and assessed under the Irish Coastal Protection Strategy Study.

“This information will be available to all local authorities to enable them to develop appropriate plans and strategies for the sustainable management of the coastline in their counties including the identification, prioritisation and, subject to the availability of resources, the implementation of coastal protection works both of a structural and non-structural nature as appropriate,” reported the OPW.

The significant term here is “subject to availability of resources”. As with every other sphere of the economy, resources are tight. Therefore, it will take the Government’s will, as sought by Ms O’Sullivan, to ensure sufficient monies are available to put the necessary measures in place.

According to Ms O’Sullivan, a report on flooding is due to come to Cabinet on February 11. The Taoiseach and ministers must emerge from that meeting with some tangible evidence that they are finally taking the scourge of flooding seriously.

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