Many low-cost actions can reduce the impact of severe weather
Better co-ordination and legal certainty could also cut multimillion euro weather costs
A snow scene in Co Meath. While the cost of weather events like the one experienced over the last few days is significant, they are relatively rare. Photograph: Alan Betson
As the thaw begins, thoughts turn to the cost of the disruption. And given some criticism of the response to the weather, it is worth considering if the impact could have been reduced.
The extreme weather will have reduced economic activity, generated some direct costs, and, as it impacted on people’s lives, it also had wider societal costs.
The average daily national product of Ireland is around €600 million. However, not every part of the country was equally affected, and not every business closed down. Furthermore, some of the lost production will be made up, while emergency crews and others worked harder and thus increased their output.
In addition to the loss of output, significant additional costs will have been incurred. For example, clearing and gritting of roads would have come at a significant cost to local authorities. Transport Infrastructure Ireland and local authorities have a budget of over €8 million per year for winter operations.
Households also incurred significantly increased heating costs. There have also been electricity outages due to fallen overhead lines which are costly to fix and have compounded the impact on households and businesses. Of course, for some the emergency is not over as the thawing of significant volumes of snow brings with it the possibility of flooding.
While the cost of events like the one experienced over the last few days is significant, they are relatively rare
Thus, while the exact impact on output is not easily assessed at this point, it could run into many millions.
A criticism often levelled is that a relatively small amount of snow that would have little impact in other countries brings Ireland to a halt. There is no doubt that some countries are better prepared for cold weather and snowfall, but significant snowfall and snow drifts of a metre or more result in significant disruption in other countries such as the US or Germany.
So, should we have been better prepared, and would it have been possible to keep more of Ireland open?
With limited resources available, the best level of preparedness should be determined by the cost of the event, the frequency of such events, and the cost of reducing the impact.
While the cost of events like the one experienced over the last few days is significant, they are relatively rare. The last major cold spell was during the 2009/2010 winter, and there were heavy snowfalls during the 1986/1987 and the 1981/1982 winters. Thus, if the State invested heavily in extra snow ploughs and snow blowers these are likely to be idle most years.
Furthermore, even with significant investment, disruption due to extreme events cannot be eliminated. Not every road can be cleared simultaneously, and given the very disbursed settlement patterns, Ireland has an unusually large network of small rural roads that are more difficult to clear.
While significant cold spells and heavy snowfalls are rare, small snowfalls are not uncommon. Met Éireann records show that over the 30 years from 1981, Dublin airport recorded on average 16 days with snow or sleet, while 20 days with snow or sleet were recorded on average in Malin Head, Co Donegal.
Such weather conditions are, however, relatively short-lived in Ireland. Records show that lying snow is only encountered on six days per year or less depending on the part of the country.
When it comes to these relatively routine events, disruption in Ireland seems to be more significant than it needs be, and improving the response here would also help in mitigating the effects of more extreme events. There are many relatively low-cost actions that would help in this regard.
Householders can also prepare better. Many central European countries have made winter tyres compulsory
There is often a lack of co-ordination between different services, where, for example, gritters stop at county boundaries or are deployed too late. Better training and co-ordination would not cost much. Across Europe many local authorities deploy multipurpose vehicles that can, for example, be used for verge/hedge-cutting and as a gritter/snow plough. Investment in vehicles should favour such multipurpose vehicles.
Local authorities seem to have stopped leaving a small supply of grit/salt in rural snow/ice blackspots (at least in my area), which could be used by locals to keep rural roads safe. This might be due to potential liability issues. Here some legal clarity is required, and if needs be some change in the law.
Reducing the impact of cold spells and snow is not just a matter for government. Householders can also prepare better. Many central European countries have made winter tyres compulsory. These not only make driving in snow or slush safer, they also reduce breaking distances on dry roads at lower temperatures.
Water shortages during a cold spell are often not due to frozen pipes but excess water use as people prefer to run taps rather than insulate them properly. A proper pricing system for water would minimise this issue.
There is a lot of confusion about the obligations and legal implications around clearing footpaths in Ireland. In countries like Germany there is an obligation for householders and businesses to clear the footpath in front of their house or premises. This is based on the fact that local authority staff cannot simultaneously clear all footpaths, and thus to reduce accidents the onus is put on households and businesses. Some legal certainty would help and cost little.
Importantly, the most common extreme weather events in Ireland are storms and floods, which occur almost every year. Mitigating their impact should, therefore, be of higher priority.
Edgar Morgenroth is full professor of economics at Dublin City University business school