Is Ireland prepared for a wetter future?

Traditional political cures for flooding may not be effective in the years ahead

“Job done,” said the Minister for Flood Relief, striding from the swollen waters of the Shannon. “I’m drownded f***in’ wet though.”

For a politician, the prospect of wading, sometimes literally, into a crisis can prove irresistible. So it was for Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, who last week tweeted a video of his bare-chested efforts at flood relief in his Co Westmeath constituency.

It’s easy to see what draws politicians into the icy waters of winter flooding. It’s a clear-cut opportunity to show ordinary people, in the midst of serious hardship, that their politicians feel their pain, and are there to help, usually with a big cheque for flood-relief works. It is, at its core, old school politics – a visible problem that comes with a tangible solution, and an injection of taxpayer cash.

However, experts say Ireland is facing a future where traditional political cures for flooding may not be effective. It will bring together profound and complicated questions about land use, climate change and the power of vested interests.

Is Ireland prepared for a wetter future? The rainfall which gave rise to last month’s floods was extraordinary – but it is becoming more ordinary.

Some 16 of 25 Met Éireann stations have just had their wettest February ever. "The jet stream powered up during February and brought wave after wave of low pressure systems across the Atlantic," says Alan O'Reilly, who runs the popular and respected Carlow Weather Blog.

First came unusually wet weather, then a succession of three winter storms: Ciara, Dennis and Jorge. By the time Dennis arrived on the 16th, many stations had surpassed their mean rainfall for the month, O’Reilly says.

The rain is only half the problem, according to geographers. The other half is the kind of land on which it is falling .

Peter Thorne, professor of physical geography in NUI Maynooth, says the impact of this weather will be exacerbated by the way in which we have interacted with the land in recent centuries. "Centuries ago the rivers would have coped much better with the rainfall we are seeing today because the trees and wetlands acted as an enormous sponge."

More extreme rainfall, influenced by human behaviour, is only moving in one direction, according to Prof Thorne. “If you look at any of the projections, it will get worse.”

Land use

For decades, Ireland's floods policy was basically reactive and ad-hoc, according to Dr John Martin, head of flooding with the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The main governing legislation for flood relief was the arterial drainage act 1945, under which the OPW still has responsibility for maintaining 11,500km of waterways, and the efficient flood management of 650,000 acres of agricultural land.

Changes to national and European law in the mid-2000s engendered a more structured approach. The result, more than a decade later, was the publication of the Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) study in 2018. The CFRAM is the overriding framework for a €1 billion flood works investment programme, designed to alleviate risk for 34,500 homes and businesses across the country.

Where there was chaos, it sought to impose order, with the production of detailed flood maps and dozens of individual flood management plans. It also involved massive capital investment into works.

It cost €58 million last year, and has a budget of €85 million this year, growing to €100 million annually in coming years.

However, experts have questioned some of the solutions proposed under CFRAM. Flood mitigation measures which focus on so called “heavy engineering” – the construction of weighty flood defences designed to protect against high water – will only go so far, says Prof Thorne.

“We can hard engineer, but we need to also take a long hard look at ourselves and think about how we’ve made the matter worse through land use changes. We need to undo much of the damage,” he says.

Dr Mary Bourke, a geomorphologist with Trinity College Dublin, agrees. "We are just beginning to realise we need to take a different approach. Our plans are to engineer our way out of it," she says. While that may be suitable for some towns and cities, "in other places, that's not suitable, it won't work, it's too expensive and it will take too long".

A focus on natural methods of restoring the land’s innate ability to deal with extreme weather is also needed, she says. This means reforestation, as well as the construction of dams using natural materials and other measures concentrated upstream from flood zones are needed.

She is also concerned about whether works under CFRAM will be equal to the challenge of extreme and unprecedented weather. “The concern I have [is] they are modelling on existing rainfall and discharge records. That’s not capturing the entire probability of floods in Ireland because the record isn’t long enough,” she says. “They’re not building for climate change or the increased impact of humans on the landscape.”

The OPW, for its part, says all its flood defence projects are modelled on a range of scenarios, including different impacts of climate change. They also try to incorporate elements of natural defences alongside heavy engineering. However, Dr Martin says they are “rarely sufficient in their own right [and] are less effective in extreme flood events”.

While there are “natural” elements to several projects in train, the nine in-construction flood relief projects, he concedes, “all have a significant degree of heavy engineering”.

‘A wider view’

Many, such as engineer and consultant Jonathan Cooper, MD of JBA Consulting, say what is needed is a policy that knits together flood management with wider goals around land use.

“We need to be mature about things. Places like the Shannon, there is no physical intervention that can resolve the issues to everyone’s satisfaction, so there has to be a wider view on how we go forward.”

In many instances, he says, we have “subsistence farming supported by a system which is not providing the environmental and flood management outcomes we need now”. Changing that will involve convincing landowners to change the way they use land. That is easier said then done, coming off the back of decades of policy that encouraged farming.

The OPW’s Dr Martin says reforms which target the relationship between economic incentives and land use would need to be meaningful. “You’re looking at fairly fundamental policy changes to have an impact on how those people manage their land,” he says.

NUIM’s Prof Thorne is calling for a national land use plan which works with a reformed common agricultural policy to incentivise different forms of land use.

“We are not doing this because of enormous entrenched interests – much of this land is owned by private interests, in particular the agricultural sector,” he says. “We need to have a long and involved conversation about our national land use.”

TCD’s Dr Bourke says flooding events are getting more extreme, and more frequent, and society needs to find a policy that allows people to live with and mitigate the effects. Otherwise, she says, it will be a “clash of humans and natural energy happening, and nature is going to win”.