After the floods = before the floods

Last winter saw some of the most dramatic floods in Ireland’s history. The rainy season is about to start. Will we see half the country under water again? We don’t know what the weather will be like. We do know, however, that everything else is much the same as last year.

It takes time to build or reinforce flood defenses. Monies have been allocated to the OPW to do that, and we’ll see the results in years to come. Other matters should take less time, but our dear leaders have been otherwise occupied.

An Oireachtas committee concluded that too many agencies were part-responsible for flood management. They still are. The same committee argue that a single minister should be in charge in case of an emergency. He is still not. Last winter, it was not clear who should call in the army and when. It still is not.

One of last year’s problems was that there was no early warning system. There is still no national one at either floodmaps or flooding, and the county councils do not seem to have put anything in place either. Hydrometric data are still incomplete and out of date. Last year, ESB filled up its reservoirs just before the rainy season. Did they do so again? The latest data I could find on the river Lee are from 2008, and do not cover the reservoirs.

The ESB is still in charge of these reservoirs. In last year’s panic over potential dam failure, the dam operators did not warn the people in Cork. Do the authorities now have automatic access to data on water levels and releases? If they do, they have kept silent about it.

So, Ireland is still as vulnerable to flooding as it was a year ago. Let’s hope it won’t rain as much.

16 thoughts on “After the floods = before the floods”

  1. Local opinion, downstream of Ardnacrusha, is that the ESB has been running off water to get the Shannon water level down in anticipation of rain. I’ll be able to provide on-site observations later in the month.

    bjg

  2. Let’s not over-dramatise. The floods last year were hardly Noah’s Ark level.

    While all Richard Tol’s proposals for coordinating the response seem sensible, wouldn’t it be better to wait until we know for certain whether or not there has actually been any change in the climate, that is likely to produce more a lot more flooding in the future than in the past, before diverting scarce resources from other more urgent infrastructural needs? I keep an open mind on whether or not there has been any such climate change. Even the climate experts are divided.

    While only a madman would try to forecast the weather in Ireland, I seem to recall the experts saying last year that the floods in November were due, not just to heavy rain in November, but to the accumulation of heavy rain throughout 2009. This year has been much drier.

    If there is no more flooding in the future than in the past, then it would be far more productive to limit any flood barriers to the small handful of places that allready have frequent flooding, and to continue giving preference to spending scarce resources on building new motorways and roads, and other infrastructure, than on flood barriers in locations where floods occur very infrequently.

    My home village in Tyrone was very badly flooded in the late 1950s when the Mourne overflowed. Part of the town was under several feet of water for 24 hours. Lots of people were evacuated and put up in Church halls. Back then, people didn’t request spending scarce resources on building a barrier between the town and the river. They considered the flooding an Act of God and got on with their lives, and preferred their taxes to be spent on other more urgent infrastructural needs. If they’d spent lots of scarce resources building a barrier between the town and the river, it would have been wasted as the river has never overflowed since.

    Naturally, if convincing evidence is produced that shows floods much likely in the future than in the past, then flood barriers can be moved up the league table of priorities. Until then, common sense is required.

    Up until now at least, flooding has not been a serious problem in Ireland. This is not the Netherlands, where a large part of the country is below sea-level and protecting the country from the encroachment of the sea is part of the national culture. Ireland has never needed a little boy to stick his finger in the dyke. So, let’s not exaggerate the problem of flooding in Ireland. In comparison with elsewhere, the floods last year were relatively minor and shortlived. No one drowned, as far as I know. There was little structural damage. The main damage seems to have been soggy carpets. I’ve just returned from southern USA, where they have real floods. New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, all had flooding recently one hundred times worse than what occurred in Ireland last year. Even The Grand Ole Opry is still out of action since it was flooded last May. Dozens were drowned in floods in southern France and Portugal earlier this year. Some perspective is needed before diverting scarce resources from other infrastructural needs to flood barriers. Most places in Ireland have far more urgent infrastructural needs than flood barriers, although I agree that there are a small handful of locations that do. Despite the large fall in recent years, far more people are still killed on the roads each year than are drowned in flooding. Reducing this toll is far more important.

  3. Richard,

    things are not quiet the same.
    I’m living beside the Iniscarra lake. The levels have never been so low. In fact the ESB have kept levels in at least one of the lakes on the Lee low since November last. Prior to the flood last year the levels of both lakes were very very high. We were at the lake-side with ESB staff on the Friday prior to the flood last year and commented on the levels.

    For sure the current infrastructure on the Lee (i.e. two dams) was not being employed properly to prevent flooding.
    In their defence though the water was being held back to facilitate a search for a body.

    Mary

  4. I do not know if we have been freakishly lucky in this part of Meath or what, but …

    Last summer (2009) a friendly town councillor passed on to us a report commissioned by the Town Council, which showed our estate and the adjacent one could be hit with a “1 in 100” year flood which would cover about half the lower stories on the estate.

    This was even before the November floods, which we escaped. But (a little to our surprise) the Council has proceeded to plan construction of flood walls, embankments and drainage to protect us and the downstream housing estates. The “river” involved is little more than a stream in the summer, but it goes under a culvert between our estate and the adjacent one, which could “overtop” in the words of the report.

    In fact some residents have already been hit with a loading on their house insurance, though we have never actually have had a flood, and even though they are outside the flood zone!!.

    The council have the plans out for comment, and we hear the funding is available so the works will proceed. It seems incredible – some proactivity from an Irish town council that does not involve property developers! That may be a tribute to our local engineering staff. Some parts of Navan have been hit by floods in the recent past.

    From my own investigations, Irish councils have for some years been called upon to plan for climate change and increased flooding risk, but very few of it took that seriously in the rush to be “business friendly”. An example of what James Hansen calls “greenwashing”. However, full marks to Navan Town Council, so far at least! 🙂

  5. Richard, in part the situation with the Lee was apparently due to the ESB holding in water for a while (2 weeks some folks said) to allow water levels to drop as there was a search for someone who was missing and believed to have gone into the river. That’s not the whole reason but it was perhaps part of the cause. The other thing re: alerting people, I contacted the department of communications and party spokespersons suggesting the use of cell broadcast based text messaging as I’d heard of it being used in other countries in emergencies and had touched on it myself briefly for a commercial idea that didn’t pan out.

    There was a report on foot of this during the summer from the Oireachtas communications committee suggesting that we should look at it but no time frames were established for requiring that the appropriate changes if needed be made or that the state should have the ability to use it cost free as part of the awarding of network licenses.

  6. I’ve walked the length of the Suir from below C-on Suir to Cahir during the summer. And on it’s entire length, the banks are loaded with wood growth and excavated gravel creating semi levee. Tow-paths four foot higher than the stonework of the person that designed the thing.
    All these things narrow the available expansion when the river floods. leaving the only static space in the town of Clonmel.
    As to the other areas, why on earth are there not automated rain gauges up and down the catchment. If they can automate a lighthouse, how hard can it be to force the mobile operators to provide some bandwidth. They must have put some sort of restrictions for military reasons on the licences. And on that point, why not have the idle army in overall control of this kind of operation, rather than every committee in the State with an Oar in the water.

  7. Machiavelli’s comment about the Fortune being like a flooding river springs to mind.

    The flooding river (Fortune) turns “turns the plains into lakes, throws down the trees and buildings, takes earth from one spot, puts it in another; everyone flees before the flood; everyone yields to its fury and nowhere can repel it”.

    The adverse effects of such events may be anticipated and attenuated in advance, but only if there is a bit of foresight (“virtù and wisdom”). In the context of the flooding river this means building ditches and levees.

    I get the feeling that Machiavelli’s thinks that that is a big “but”.

  8. “So, Ireland is still as vulnerable to flooding as it was a year ago. Let’s hope it won’t rain as much”
    A perfect metaphor for much of government “planning”. Ah, shure, maybe it wont happen…

  9. @Richard – “One of last year’s problems was that there was no early warning system. There is still no national one at either floodmaps or flooding, and the county councils do not seem to have put anything in place either.” – this would seem to imply that Ireland does not comply with the EU Floods Directive??

    With the increase in severe flooding at least along the tributaries to the river Elbe (Czech Republic, Germany and Poland) a lot is being learned about where to build flood defences and what type. During a recent flood (they have actually had at least two bad ones this summer) some flood defences that had only recently been completed were ripped up in a hurry as they were found to make things worse (the water came in from another direction and the defences ended up trapping the water). In some areas the most successful defence was to have none at all and instead let the water flood the floodplains. Of course that is not an option if the floodplains have been built on. The most expensive option is not necessarily the best.

  10. “In some areas the most successful defence was to have none at all and instead let the water flood the floodplains. ”

    Good idea !!!! The thing is that there should not be development or housing on the floodplains that would be adversely affected.

    Limerick was affected just like everywhere else, but managed to avert the worst effects of the last years floods – despite being at the mouth of the Sahnnon – because there is very little development in floodplains.

    Unfortunately the same cant be said about other parts of Ireland.

  11. Very shortly before the last flooding the OECD pointed out that while some progress was being made that it would likely not be enough.

    Good to see the old FF approach, and that of its paid cheerleaders, of cross your fingers and pray approach to planning is working.

    Planning is secondary to the placement of contacts into various bodies or the placing of deals in the way of developers for those people and they are so entrenched into the various institutions of Ireland that probably nothing will be done until the current govt. is sacked.

    So keep on waiting for anything to happen.

    Toby’s comment is informative.

    Richard,

    Is JtO more Flodder than Flooder?

  12. I wonder will the Ennis railway line flood again or have OPW and IE finally settled on who’ll pay for remediation, a dispute which goes back to the line’s initial construction! Not to mention the remembrance of Kiltartan Level Crossing under several feet of water before the “Western Rail Corridor” even had a chance to reopen.

  13. As Mary and Dan O Sull stated, it was reported/alluded to that the dams in Cork were holding water back to allow a search for a body. I heard a story that teh body was acually found after the floods – however true any of these `duirt bean liom gur duirt bean lei’ stories are. After however many months it should be clear that the ESB either held water back to search for the body or they didn’t .

    Also re Dan O Sullivan’s comments re cell broadcast – RTE don’t do traffic news on radio ‘cos users of radios don’t like their radios changing to traffic news even though most radios can be changed to prevent this by their operators.

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