Oireachtas report on November floods

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment etc published a report on the November floods while I was on holiday. It is interesting both for what it says and does not say.

The report is clear about responsibilities: There are too many agencies involved, and no one took the lead. The report argues that the Minister of the Environment should take charge.

The committee also laments the role played by the ESB, and underlines that perhaps it should have been involved in Cork’s flood management.

The report has a little gem: “The ESB made the point that they issued two warnings on Thursday, 19th November, which was unique. However, the significance of the two notifications wasn’t appreciated by the general public.” Perhaps that is because the general public did not understand that “higher than 300 m3/s” really meant 535 m3/s. Along the same lines, ESB apparently told the Lee Waterworks at 22:10 that 450 m3/s was being released, while the actual release had reached 546 m3/s by 21:50. The report does not make much of this, but it does call for further investigations.

The report is silent on a number of things. It avoids questions of liability. It calls on the OPW to develop a flood warning system, but omits that crucial data are off-limits to the OPW and that the data exchange between Met Eireann and OPW is not perfect either. The report acknowledges that there too many agencies involved, but it does not name those that should be relieved from their duties.

The list of invitees to the hearings is interesting too: Only insiders were heard. Not at single independent expert was invited.

32 thoughts on “Oireachtas report on November floods”

  1. As far as I’m concerned in situations like this the Dept of Defence is the man for the job. And as to the mobile phone network. If there is not some sort of protocol that in these sort of circumstances that reserved channels can be used that someone has ****ed up in a very major way.

  2. Well while you were away Minister Gormley said there will be no independent enquiry….welcome back to Ireland where no one takes responsibility!!

  3. “…omits that […] the data exchange between Met Eireann and OPW is not perfect either”

    Hi Richard – Could you expand on that point?

    Regards,

  4. The ESB could have said they’re releasing 1 million cubic meters per second for all the difference the warning would have made. The figure won’t be understand on the receiving end, it’s like telling someone they’re going to be hit by however many newtons instead of telling them they’re about to be hit by a bus.

    The amount of water being released needs to be as well quantifed as to the severity of flooding it’s likely to cause. A simple colour coded warning scheme would have helped ensure the gardai, council, fire service know when evacuations have to be enforced.

    I get the impression the ESB are hoping the council won’t admit they’d no idea of what the release rates implied. I’d also suspect the ESB didn’t really know.

    If the ESB dam was owned by a private company I wonder how different their treatment would have been?

  5. @JackH
    I disagree. It is obviously not the job of the ESB to communicate with the general public. The ESB should inform the City Council, who should then take appropriate action — including the issuing of timely and understandable warnings to everone involved.

    However, the Council prepared for 300 m3/s, and thought they could cope. We’ll never know whether their judgement was correct, because they were hit by more than 500 m3/s.

    There is a simple solution: The Council should have instantaneous and unconditional access to the actual and predicted water flow. This information sits on an ESB computer. It should be transmitted to a Council computer. Last November, said information was transmitted incorrectly and at the discretion of the ESB.

  6. Isn’t the ESB’s remit to generate electricity and therefore preventing flooding is low on the agenda. I am from around there and it has happened on numerous occassions that minor flooding is caused because the ESB have been slow in releasing water in the early stages of persistent rainfall.

    It should either be put in the ESB’s remit or else it should be taken out of their control. Btw what happens if the ESB gets privatised?? 😉

  7. @De Roiste
    I agree, but the Committee does not. It calls on the ESB to be more cooperative in flood management. I say: transfer these dams to the OPW.

  8. Rubbish Richard Tol, if the dam was about to fail then the ESB has requirement to inform all below the wash.
    You just cannot be that stupid, this is a Dam Busters senario. If the ESB allowed that amount over the spill-way they then were not in a tizzy about wetting Cork but profound failure. This isn’t a question of just how wet Cork became, but just how near Cork became to being washed out to sea.

  9. As I am just back from holidays, I have not yet read the full Oireachtas report. I have downloaded it and will read it later.

    During the floods, I monitored what was happening below Parteen Villa Weir, which divides water between the Ardnacrusha headrace and the real Shannon; I put photos, and such other information as I could get, on pages linked to this page: http://irishwaterwayshistory.com/the-floods-of-november-2009/

    Afterwards, I attempted to sum up what had happened here:
    http://irishwaterwayshistory.com/the-floods-of-november-2009/flooding-below-parteen-villa-weir-the-story-so-far/

    I asked the ESB to help me to improve the account on that page, but I had no response.

    During the floods, the ESB put out a series of press statements (which were available on its website) with information that was not very helpful. I don’t see why the local authority, rather than the ESB, should be responsible for communicating with the public, but I would prefer more useful ESB press releases. Perhaps they simply had no model of potential flood levels below Parteen Villa Weir; perhaps they will have better data for the next flood.

    bjg

  10. @Vincent
    Note that the engineer in charge made the right decision to release the water. The alternative, dam failure, would have been much worse.

    I also understand that they were probably in a panic and so forgot to inform the people downstream. That’s a key result in the emergency response literature: Cut out the middlemen and automate communication.

    That said, this situation should never have come to pass. We were at the start of the rainy season, and the reservoirs were full.

    Furthermore, the predictive models of the ESB completely failed, even at a forecasting horizon of 6 hours.

  11. Was this a dastardly plan by the functionaries within the castle walls of the Pale to eliminate the Peoples Republic of Cork from the map ?

  12. De Roiste asked “Btw what happens if the ESB gets privatised??”

    Actually, this is grist to privatisers, since it shows that government-owned does not equal competence even in matters of public safety.

  13. Does the report make mention of the considered judgement in the Irish Times by one R. Tol that the flooding was good for them? (sorry, ‘provides a stimulus’ from repairing flood damage)

  14. @ EWI

    I can see why that article might rub people the wrong way, but the point being made was more complex than you imply. The point was that although floods are bad, there are times when they’re less detrimental to the local economy. The dynamics of how natural (/ESB) disasters affect economies in different stages of boom-bust cycles is important, if not uncontroversial. I know you don’t see eye-to-eye with some people here (including me), but that particular article seemed quite reasonable to me.

  15. @Richard Tol
    The govt is trying to transfer the national grid form the esb to eirgrid with little success, I’d imagine transferring power plant is even less likely to happen.

    Was there any mention of the fact the esb held water back to allow a search for a missing person, and what was the recommendation for this happening in future?

  16. I know you don’t see eye-to-eye with some people here (including me), but that particular article seemed quite reasonable to me.

    I’m sorry, but I think that it’s only ‘reasonable’ from the point of view of the construction industry (and I feel the need to remark here on the wild swings in acceptability of temporary building work in this parish), but not for the (poorer) majority of citizens of Cork affected by this.

  17. @Carrawaystick

    The ESB should have been releasing water well before the search for the missing person (I think there were 2 searches at that time). But I agree this seems to have been a contributory factor that understandably didn’t really get mentioned at the time.

  18. @Carrawaystick
    I was not aware of that search. Thank you.

    As state control over the ESB, I had always thought that we were the majority shareholder. The state is perfectly capable of telling the ESB to diversify into transport, so I think we can tell it to divest its interests in hydropower.

  19. @Richard Tol:
    “The state is perfectly capable of telling the ESB to diversify into transport, so I think we can tell it to divest its interests in hydropower.”

    Are you suggesting that hydropower should be abandoned or that someone else should run it?

    bjg

  20. @BJG
    The dams should be run for flood safety first and hydropower second. That would suggest that something else than a power company should run them.

  21. @Richard Tol:
    “The dams should be run for flood safety first and hydropower second. That would suggest that something else than a power company should run them.”

    Of course on the Shannon that would mean that the ESB could continue to run the hydropower station at Ardnacrusha while someone else ran Parteen Villa Weir. (I am not clear to which of them you apply the, to my mind, inappropriate word “dam”.)

    bjg

  22. In this area the ‘conventional wisdom’ that seems to have emerged – similar to the previous dominance of the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ – is that electricity generation businesses should be fragmented, almost to the plant level, and required to compete in some form of wholesale electricity market. I suspect this, in addition to water flow management issues, may be motivating Richard’s preference for divestment of the ESB’s hydro activities.

    I remain unconvinced – particularly in a market as small as Ireland’s. The problem is that the historical counterfactual – vertically integrated monopoly businesses – were often gloriously inefficient. Therefore, any reform or restructuring of this model is seen, almost by definition, as an improvement in efficiency terms. However, there is limited research on the costs and benefits of the complete restructuring that comprises full retail competition and significant de-integration of electricity generation. (Even though the EU is determined to charge ahead, the roll-out of retail competition in the US has stalled and various hybrids of re-regulation and retail competition are being developed.)

    The strong preference of the major EU member-states for ‘national champions’ that operate on an EU-wide basis (and globally) – e.g., EdF, GdF/Suez, E.on, RWE, ENEL – is generally condemned by economists and Eurocrats as chauvinist, nationalistic and anti-Europe, but it may be running with the grain of an underlying economic wisdom. Businesses such as these, which, increasingly, are being compelled to divest their network businesses, have a range of plants capable of supplying across the load duration curve. As a result they are able to manage risks better, reduce transactions costs, commit to investments in generation (and to pay for transmission capacity) and compete in liquid wholesale markets defined on a regional basis.

    In the Irish context I would prefer to see the generation and supply businesses of the ESB and BGE combined (following divestment of the networks) and competing in an integrated British and Irish (and possibly NWE) market. I can’t see any reason why this business could not retain hydropower facilities. It simply requires the enfoprcement of specific procedures with local authorities and the emergency services.

  23. @Paul
    Hydropower is trivial from the perspective of power generation; but important from the perspective of flood safety. So, it should be run by an entity that puts flood safety first and power generation second (or third or fourth, after nature conservation and recreation).

  24. @Richard:
    “Hydropower is trivial from the perspective of power generation; but important from the perspective of flood safety.”

    My understanding is that hydropower is essentially an immediate backup mechanism to cope with gaps between supply and demand in the rest of the system. That is why Ardnacrusha is controlled from Turlough Hill; I think that nobody other than the lockkeeper works in the generating station at Ardnacrusha (although there are other operations on site. And I’m open to correction on the staffing levels).

    But Ardnacrusha itself has little or no role in flood safety: control of water flows occurs at Parteen Villa Weir and, once Ardnacrusha has all four turbines operating, that’s it. PVW then sends the excess down the original route of the Shannon. If floods like last year’s become common, there might be something to be said for taking PVW out of ESB’s control, but they seem to be rather unusual.

    Incidentally, the ESB’s responsibilities and powers extend all the way up to Meelick (Victoria Lock) and include the weir at the bottom of Lough Allen.

    I get the feeling that your comments are based on a personal preference for certain organisational arrangements rather than on any knowledge of how Ardnacrusha and PVW actually operate.

    bjg (who has no connection with ESB)

  25. @Richard:
    “This thread is about flood management, not about regulating or generating power; and the issue is the Lee rather than the Shannon.”

    Ah. I may have been misled by the thread title “Oireachtas report on November floods” and by the fact that the report itself, which I have read, covers both the Shannon and the Lee.

    As for its not being about regulating or generating power, I note that Ardnacrusha and Parteen Villa Weir were constructed to generate power. And you were the one who suggested that ESB should have its hydroelectric power stations taken away from it. That seems to me to be a statement about regulating or generating power.

    bjg

  26. This may be trivial ….but I was in Cork that weekend, and a young lad had gone missing on the Wednesday. He had been drunk and walking the river wall. It was suspected that the decision to hold off on releasing water was out of consideration for the family involved (i.e. they hoped to recover a body if there was one). The water was released late Friday night if I remember correctly. But the fact that this has not been mentioned in the report calls this theory into question.

    But on the other hand; it is clear that the water release was delayed, and with the benefit hindsight, it would highlight mass incompetency in decision-making when so much put at such risk for the sake of the above.

    In any case, these emergency situations need to be more co-ordinated.

  27. Ah. I may have been misled by the thread title “Oireachtas report on November floods” and by the fact that the report itself, which I have read, covers both the Shannon and the Lee.

    Your dry wit, sir, is appreciated and applauded.

  28. @BJG
    Let me rephrase. The thread is about floods, rather than about power generation. ESB may have been at fault at the Lee, and this may be reason to take ESB out of flood management. It may make sense to keep the hydropower unit of ESB together, so a decision inspired by the Lee may have ramifications for the Shannon.

  29. “The aim of this website is to provide commentary and information about the Irish economy.”

    (at the risk of repeating myself):

    ?

Comments are closed.