Flooding - again unprepared

 

OVERNIGHT FLOODING in Cork, Belfast and elsewhere, along with the misery and financial loss it caused to householders and businesses, is again in the headlines, this time in mid-summer. The situation is expected to deteriorate in coming years as extreme weather events are predicted to be more frequent. Minimising the impact of global warming by way of flood management and storm-surge measures are of critical importance while, at the same time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of low carbon technologies and renewable energies.

The Environment Protection Agency has compiled an unambiguous report on what to expect. Starting from the premise that Ireland’s climate has already changed, with higher temperatures and more intense and frequent rainfall, it predicts a rise in sea levels and a greater number of storm surges, along with more intense storms and rainfall events that will cause river and coastal flooding. That prognosis requires careful planning and sustained Government investment.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has emphasised that, at a time of financial difficulty, the Government has nearly doubled the amount provided for flood management schemes to €44.5 million. It is certainly a positive development. But it falls short of what is required and the funding may be misdirected. The idea that farmland can be protected and flooding prevented if we dredge rivers in a country shaped like a saucer still has adherents along the Shannon basin and in other catchments. But economic and hydrological realities are breaking through. The cost of protecting new housing estates built on those traditional flood plains would be prohibitive. It would be cheaper to knock them down and relocate the unfortunate residents to other estates controlled by Nama.

There can be no shirking of responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves. Climate change may be a global phenomenon but successive Irish governments refused to take prompt action to reduce the carbon emissions that contributed to it. In the same way, bad planning, buckshee builders and misguided government incentives gave us ghost estates and marshland homes.

Planning for extreme flooding events requires more urgent and sustained action. A starting point would be the Hippocratic approach: first, do no further harm. That will require a switch to low carbon technologies and renewable energy sources along with a reduction in current emissions. After that, it will be a case of battening down hatches and improving severe weather defences. In some countries having effective flood management infrastructure is a key performance indicator for those in charge of local government. In Ireland, most sea defences are outdated and inadequate. The same applies to rivers and other infrastructure. Up to recently, planning for a 100-year event was regarded as excessive. The repeated flooding of towns, motorways and underpasses has discredited that view. In Government, meanwhile, there is still a sense of minimal engagement, wishful thinking and muddling through.

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