Doubling of flood defence spend needed, says Simon Harris

OPW junior minister commits to €1bn national flood plan in place in a year’s time

The State will have to double its current expenditure on flood defence as it is becoming a very serious economic issue rather than just a social one, Minister of State for the Office of Public Works (OPW) Simon Harris has said.

He committed to a €1 billion national flood plan which takes climate change into account being in place by this time next year.

Speaking on Tuesday after visits to Ballinasloe, Co Galway and Crossmolina, Co Mayo - two towns affected by floods brought by Storm Desmond - Mr Harris said he had been "very moved" by the resilience shown by those affected.

He said he was looking favourably on a series of proposals aimed at temporary relief.


Long-term options

Both towns will also be presented with long-term options in March and June of next year respectively under the Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) programme.

"I have great confidence in CFRAM, which involves extensive consultation and which takes climate change factors into account, even though we aren't obliged to do this under the EU Floods Directive," Mr Harris told The Irish Times. "However, I know people want a series of interim measures, which I am looking favourably on and having my officials consider in some cases."

CFRAM was initiated in 2009, under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government, and involves drawing up plans for 300 areas at risk of flooding. Mr Harris said that it had already identified 70,000 properties which were at risk, and which did not have access to flood relief systems at present.

“A total of €430 million will be spent on flood relief, which represents more expenditure in five years than in the previous 25 years,” he said. “This is irrespective of what government is in power.”

‘Supersandbag’ structure

In Ballinasloe, Mr Harris expressed enthusiasm for several temporary measures proposed to protect St Michael's Square from the river Suck, including a "supersandbag" temporary flood relief structure and funding for Galway County Council maintenance work on the Deepark channel.

Auctioneer Pat Finn, who experienced flooding at his business, described the talks with Mr Harris as "very positive" and said he seemed to be "genuine and sincere".

“We are looking for a 24-hour alert system for the river Suck to be put in place which will allow people to get property off the ground, along with this temporary flood barrier which would give us great comfort, and non-returnable valves in drains and sewers,”Mr Finn said.

“We are talking about expenditure of just €200,000 for these measures, in advance of CFRAM, and we really need action by January 1st as we still have several winter months ahead,” he said.

In Crossmolina, Co Mayo, residents and business people favour extension of an existing alert system for the river Deel, and a Government insurance scheme which will protect businesses in the town which have not been able to secure cover since the flooding of 1989.

Water levels peaked at 3.3 metres on the Deel after Storm Desmond, compared to 2.7 metres in 1989.

"We also have an issue here with the flood walls proposed for the Deel under CFRAM, as it would involve replacement of a bridge, and residents favour dredging a channel between the Deel and Lough Conn," Fianna Fáil councillor Michael Loftus said.

“We believe the OPW is coming around to that idea as one of several options,”he said.

National issue

Cllr Loftus said that responsibility for maintaining rivers was a national issue, as the OPW only took responsibility for certain stretches.

“We have a tree on the river Deel which no one wants to take action on, and which was there before Storm Desmond hit,” he said.

Mr Harris, who also visited Bandon and Skibbereen in Cork, said he intended to visit more affected areas in the new year, including Athlone, Co Westmeath.

He said he had heard of frustrations with the emergency relief programme, but said he believed the Red Cross was processing applications within five days, once certified by local authorities.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times