Lessons from the floods

Now that the worst seems to be over, it is time to start thinking about the next flood. Today’s piece in the Independent is a small start.

17 replies on “Lessons from the floods”

“Support for measures like those listed above will retreat with the waters.” and I agree but isn’t that a bit like saying support for a well regulated banking system will retreat when economic growth returns? Haven’t we learned anything from our mistakes? A regulatory framework must be put in place to tackle such issues. Lesson 1/3-5 should be considered/implemented immediately and the all too familiar strategy of politicians hiding behind half-hearted measures must be avoided at all costs.

“…existing ones may need to be torn down” Is this plausible? Would all residents in a block of appartments agree to this? Surely those residing/owning the top floor (least affected) appartments would pursue compensation claims…


Succinct and to the point as always, but what are the chances that even two of these lessons will be learned and acted upon? I expect you must be moving on from bemusement at the endemic dysfunctionality of the Irish political and administrative system and of its economy and society. As, I think, TJ Maher once waggishly put it: “If the Dutch had Ireland they would produce enough food to feed the world; if the Irish had the Netherlands they would be inundated in the first storm”.

Otto von Bismarck:

‘If the Dutch had Ireland, they would feed the world. If the Irish occupied Holland, they would drown.’

You could imagine the pissing contests that the county councils would get into.
Perhaps EU coordination would assist us overcoming some of our national characteristics.



Thank you very much for posting that link. I have not heard of this site in any of the commentary about the floods so far – very useful to know it exists. The site looks useful – I was able to get a good deal of information on flooding in my local area – I think there is room for the site to be made more user friendly – given that the whole issue of flooding is now top of the agenda, perhaps this site should be upgraded and promoted?

Thank you, Colm. I was not aware, but perhaps should not be surprised, that the Iron Chancellor had cast his eye, in such a perceptive manner, on the Atlantic seaboard.


When I was growing up in Carrick on Shannon we had a wonderful view of the Shannon from the front of the house and we knew the line in the fields rolling down towards the river where the water reached almost every winter. Lots of houses now block that view, though initially the development stopped short of the flood line. As the town expanded in the past two decades, they built apartments and supermarkets in places that were the more natural habitat of winter fowl and snipe and rushes. The end result is very sad, but entirely predictable.

Good article and sound recommendations for action in the Indo. Now, have you any prescriptions for human greed and stupidity?

Excellent article. This particular event should have woken up the government to the dangers of flooding. What is extraordinary though is the terrible response. Yes, it does not surpise me there was no flood preparation and no warnings but where were the boots on the ground?
It was far too much to expect the government to be in any way prepared for this specific emergency. But we can now be sure that if there is an emergency of any kind the response will be disastrous.

Junior minister Joe Jacob gave a celebrated interview a few years ago on what the country would do if there was a serious accident at a British (or French) nuclear power plant. His candid but ill advised advice to the population was paraphrased by one caller:
Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good bye.
Still the case today alas.

My colleague Paul Gorecki, who is much smarter than I am, noted that my recommendations for “better planning and enforcement” were a tad vague. He has the following suggestion:

Builders are liable for any structural fault that comes to light in the first six years after completion. So if, say, the roof blows off a two-year-old building, the developer(‘s insurance company) foots the bill.

Such liability is easily extended to: If a building is flooded within 20 years of completion, the developer foots the bill. The flood risk is thus priced into the house.

@Richard Tol

Why exactly should the developer foot the bill? There is no comparison with structural faults in a building, as those are the builder’s fault. Floods are an Act of God, like hurricanes and earthquakes. They are largely unpredictable. In Ireland, they happen very rarely and on a small scale. Most countries in Europe suffer far more from flooding. For example, in 1995 half of Holland and Belgium was under water and 250,000 people had to be evacuated. Did the developers foot the bill for the houses damaged? And what about other Acts of God? Should developers foot the bill for houses damaged by hurricanes in Florida? Should developers foot the bill for houses damaged by earthquakes in California?

This is not a scheme to get at developers. They would pass on the cost according to market circumstances. The point is that the risk of flood damage would be incorporated in the project analysis from the very beginning. Developers also do site research, so they tend to be better informed about the actual flood risk than the average house buyer or indeed regulator.

Your comparison with the Netherlands and California is invalid, because they have proper planning regulations in place.

An alternative would be to require developers to identify a (preferably solvent!) insurance company willing to quote structure-plus-contents cover for, say, five years on any new development. Failing which, no planning permission. One could not let things take their course without cover, since the pols would provide free retrospective cover to the uninsured, as they appear to be promising currently. This is called ‘bringing moral hazard to the masses’. If bankers, why not householders?

Another crucial thing to remember Richard. People who study rainfall in Ireland have noticed for quite some time now, that rainfall on the east and west coast differs greatly. What I mean is, there is ‘x’ amount of rainfall average per month on the west, and similarly ‘y’ amount on the east. Of course those are averages.

But if you look at the numbers involved. A small variation around the basic average rainfall in the west is a huge amount of water. Compared to the typical variation around the average in the eastern side of the country. If it varies a bit on the east coast, it is not as big a deal at all. That is a historical fact.

We should bear in mind things like that when we think about rainfall. For instance, a 5% higher rainfall in the west of Ireland could be buckets and buckets in quantity. In the east side of Ireland, a 5% higher rainfall may not cause too many problems, or be that noticeable.

Yourself and Colm above have suggested some little ways the ‘risk’ might be built into pricing somehow. But what we don’t want to have is some really silly scheme that tries to work for the entire island.

With energy conservation, I find this also. For instance, insulating your home on the west coast of Donegal is going to save gallons of fuel, compared to the east side of the country. But the energy rating does not make that distinction. You add to that the fact that people in Dublin might have access to reasonably priced, clean and efficient fuels like mains gas.

I guess you are going to tell me now that someone in Donegal could hoist up a wind turbine, while doing that in Dublin would be a waste of time. You would be absolutely correct. Certain parts of the country do enough better renewable resources. Also worthy of note, would be ponds, rivers etc where heat pumps could work nicely. Waterways can be a source of clean energy. Best if they don’t flood the dwelling aswell though.

But you pick up the newspaper property section, in something like the ‘Limerick Leader’ and they are plastered with 6,000 sq. foot mock mansions. These things are as big as community centres. Absolutely no sign or signal included in the advertisements to warn people buying these monstrousities of the risk of fuel poverty down the road. It is the equivalent of saddling a ‘Panzer Mark IV’ around their necks for life in terms of energy requirements.

Sure the Department of the environment is fighting some kind of a battle on this front. But really, if homes were half the size and could invest in better components to last over time and payback with clean, renewable energy supplies – which we have in the countryside – then it would be something.

You can understand the anger of people on Pat Kenny’s show last night. They paid top dollar and they have been sold a pig in a poke. In ways they haven’t even begun to appreciate – not just on the flood plain side of things.

I mean, I have built apartments in the centre of Dublin city which had masses of north facing glazing. It is completely useless. It receives absolutely nothing in terms of free, clean, solar gain – but the same glass wall does act as a huge ‘sucker’ of thermal energy in the nightime all year around. I didn’t think so much about this at the time. During the boom years, developers didn’t think much about it either. The north facing unit sold for exactly the same as a beautiful south facing, energy efficient unit. Buyers didn’t understand either.

Now, the fact is, a city centre apartment also implies a lot of Co2 and energy savings elsewhere in terms of transportation and avoidance of urban sprawl. So I cannot be too hard on them. But good ‘orientation’ for units in more suburban areas should be mandatory. I look at homes built recently in the country side standing on one acre or more of ground. They have all north facing glazing. This is simply absurd. No one is ever going to change or alter that for the life time of the house. They are like Panzer Mark IV’s with lousy fuel consumption profiles.

We need to balance all of these things together somehow in the same bundle. Yeah, the auctioneer is the ultimate point of sale key to this. He or she needs the best bullet proof scheme as a backup. Auctioneers act on behalf of the seller mainly. One more thing I might as well add to this now. The north facing apartments where developers packed in units, hundreds to the acre in Dublin city. Looking at these, apart from their poor orientation, they look quite innocent.

But what you don’t seen when you walk around them etc, is the thousands of miles of expensive national electricity grid infrastructure that is used to power these babies. All those miles of electricity line have to be maintained and upgraded.

Apartments use electricity for heating, water heating, lighting, appliances. They have a massive electricity per m2 consumption density. We are now stuck over on the west coast of Ireland building turbines across mountain ranges – to give the purest form of power, electricity – back to someone in an apartment to heat their living room? And these developers don’t even want to give a south facing window, to try and save a few miserable kilowatt hours of electricity?

All of this was passed by planners who came up with the bright notion of dense development. The same planners who decided that towns aught to turn themselves towards the rivers. I have said this before – developers have all the expertise and sit across the table from a bunch of people who have not connection back to the real world. Developers know this, and if we intend to give them one barrel for flood plains, we aught to give them both barrels as we are at it for all of the other mishaps also.

@ Al
You are saying that the Irish cannot govern. Just like Bismarck? Perhaps that is the answer? Allow Lisbon to end our pathetic attempts? The robber barons would not be happy.


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