Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 June 2006

5:00 pm

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Longford-Roscommon, Fianna Fail)
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I raise this matter on the Adjournment to call on the Minister for Agriculture and Food to provide compensation to farmers in the Shannon and Suck river basin for the loss of fodder due to the severe flooding in the area in recent weeks. In particular I refer to my constituency of Roscommon-south Leitrim and the area of south Roscommon from Athlone, through the Clonown area, to Shannonbridge, on to Meelick and on the River Suck from Athleague, through the Ballyforan area, down through the Moore area to Shannon Harbour.

Given the extraordinary levels of rainfall in early May, farmers in that region who had taken their cattle to the callows in May had to withdraw them due to severe flooding. That is now causing severe hardship and a financial strain on the farmers involved, first, because of the cost of moving cattle, which must be moved by tractors, trailers and lorries, second, the fact that they had to go back on lands closed for hay and silage to be cut later in the year and, third, bagged and loose feedstuff, and in some cases hay and silage, had to be bought from merchants. It must be understood that these callows, by and large, are now useless for 2006. The picture I paint on behalf of the farmers who live in the south Roscommon area and who have suffered a great financial loss over the past four weeks is not a rosy one and it will have repercussions in terms of their income for 2006.

I ask that the Minister pay a direct fodder payment to the farmers involved. It is easy for the Teagasc offices to evaluate for the Minister the losses involved. I do not want to hear that they must go through the community welfare officer, the Department of Social and Family Affairs or the Red Cross, or that some other group will examine hardship cases. Farmers are business people and they have suffered a major loss through no fault of their own. It was an act of God. There is a responsibility on the Department of Agriculture and Food. I call also on the Department of Finance to approve moneys for the Department of Agriculture and Food to allow payments to be made to these farmers directly through the Department of Agriculture and Food.

The Teagasc offices in County Roscommon should be called in and asked to evaluate the losses and a financial package should be put together to meet those losses. Nobody is looking for a major package but losses are being experienced and in many cases they amount to several thousand euro to individual farmers. Farmers throughout the country are not making a living from their land to any great extent. Indeed, they have difficulty surviving. Most of them are surviving on the basis of a spouse working or working themselves part time.

I have had numerous representations from farmers and farmer organisations in the south Roscommon area. I am aware that representatives from the Westmeath and Offaly constituencies have had similar representations, and I presume that applies to east Galway. I am talking about a pocket of Ireland in the midlands that is concentrated from the weir at Meelick towards Athlone and the implications of that on the River Shannon and the farmers on both sides, particularly the south Roscommon area as far as I am concerned, and from Shannon Harbour to Athleague, both on the Roscommon and the east Galway side. As far as I am aware, it is only in that pocket of the country that this hardship is being experienced.

This situation is ongoing and there is nothing the farmers can do about it. The only way we can respond as a Parliament is to call on the Minister with responsibility, namely, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, to provide a financial package for these people. That should be done through the Department of Agriculture and Food, with the Department of Finance providing the necessary funds. The statutory body capable, on past experience, of doing evaluations, namely, Teagasc, must carry out those investigations as a matter of urgency in the interest of the farmers in the region.

Tim O'Malley (Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I am replying to this Adjournment debate matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, who is unable, due to another commitment, to be in the House this afternoon. The Minister has asked me to apologise for his unavoidable absence.

The River Shannon is the longest river in Ireland and one of the larger rivers in western Europe. The river drains a catchment of 14,700 sq km to the Shannon Estuary, an area of approximately one fifth of the area of Ireland. The river is characterised by relatively steep upper and lower sections and a very flat gradient through its middle reach from Lough Ree to Lough Derg. The low-lying lands surrounding the River Shannon, or the callows, especially those along the middle section, have experienced regular flooding for centuries.

The Minister of State and his officials in the Office of Public Works are aware of the current level of flooding in the Shannon callows. While winter and occasional summer flooding is a feature of the callows, severe flooding of the kind being experienced at present is not. The current exceptional flooding is due to the unusually heavy rainfall we have experienced in the month of May. It may well prove to be the highest May rainfall on record.

I understand that the farming area to which the Deputy refers lies within a special area of conservation. With regard to the question of possible compensation for the financial loss incurred by farmers as a result of flooding in this area, it is therefore primarily a matter for consideration by the Department of Agriculture and Food or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

While it is true that the OPW was involved in recent years in overseeing a number of humanitarian aid schemes administered on the OPW's behalf by the Irish Red Cross for the relief of those who had suffered hardship as a result of severe flooding, I stress that each of these schemes was only introduced on foot of a Government decision and only in instances where the damage had been especially severe and widespread throughout the country. The schemes were humanitarian and were designed to relieve hardship. They were not compensation for losses. While some of the earlier schemes provided assistance where hardship resulted from damage to businesses and farm buildings, provision of aid in the more recent schemes was restricted to hardship resulting from damage to homes only.

The OPW no longer has any responsibility for such Government approved humanitarian aid schemes. This function has now been transferred from the OPW to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, following the recommendations of the interdepartmental flood policy review group. The Government approved the implementation of the recommendations of the flood policy review group in September 2004. One of the review group's recommendations was that:

[T]he provision of emergency assistance (Humanitarian Aid) where serious flooding has occurred to be limited to situations where damage has occurred to homes and to be administered by the community welfare services of the regional health boards, in conjunction with, as appropriate, local community and voluntary groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Responsibility for future programmes of humanitarian aid has therefore now been transferred from the OPW to the Department of Social and Family Affairs under whose aegis the community welfare services operate.

The Office of Public Works has no responsibility in the maintenance of the River Shannon. It would be open to the commissioners under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Act 1945 and the Arterial Drainage (Amendment) Act 1995 to prepare a scheme to prevent or substantially reduce flooding in an area. The possibility of undertaking an arterial drainage scheme for the River Shannon has been considered on a number of occasions and has been ruled out on both economic and environmental grounds.

In 2003, the Commissioners of Public Works undertook a further preliminary assessment of the Shannon flood problem. This reviewed the previous reports and their conclusions in the light of the changes that had occurred in the catchment in the intervening 40 years. The review considered a variety of issues, for example, conditions in and competing uses of the river, perceived changed climate patterns, changed agricultural regulations and practices, different economic circumstances for agriculture and other industries, the higher values being placed on environmental and heritage assets and tourism opportunities.

This was to establish if any possibility existed that a more detailed study might identify viable options to alleviate the flooding problem. It recommended that a pre-feasibility study of possible flood risk management opportunities be undertaken. That study was completed in late 2004 and copies were given to the stakeholders.