Thursday, 28 June 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Flood Prevention Measures
I wish to join with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and Deputy Troy who, during Leaders' Questions this morning, commended local authorities and the emergency services working on the flooding situation in Cork and other affected areas. I understand that the national co-ordination group for emergency management has met and is working closely with local services in the affected areas.
I sought to raise the issue earlier this week and in the meantime I have met with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, whose responsibilities include the Office of Public Works. I also met with other TDs yesterday whose constituencies have been affected by flooding along the River Shannon, including parts of Offaly, Westmeath, Roscommon and east Galway.
Summer flooding along the Shannon has become more frequent in recent years, but never has it been more severe than in recent weeks. The Shannon Callows traditionally flood between October and April, hence farmers rely heavily on dry summers for the production of silage and grazing ground.
In the week beginning Monday, 11 June, Met Éireann issued a weather alert warning of severe rainfall and floods. Continuous rain on Thursday and Friday resulted in flooding on lands traditionally used for grazing. The deluge has meant that some silage-bearing ground is being used for grazing, resulting in a loss of winter feed, while some farmers are using winter feed for cattle which should be grazing. Many farmers now fear that they may have to sell stock to compensate for this loss. In some cases, individual farmers have up to 58 acres under water. As a result of the flooding between Banagher and Athlone, thousands of acres have been destroyed and are under water.
Many people say that all this could have been avoided. The bodies which have authority to agree to open sluice-gates include the ESB, Waterways Ireland and the OPW. Yet in this instance, it was Saturday before the gates at Lusmagh and Meelick were opened. The Minister of State's officials confirmed yesterday that no specific protocol is currently in place to oblige these authorities to open sluice-gates, despite the issuance of severe weather warnings.
Why must we wait for the damage to be done before acting in this regard? It seems unbelievable that in this day and age such a catastrophe could be allowed to happen, considering the warnings that were put in place.
I acknowledge the Minister of State's commitment to a meeting next Tuesday of all relevant stakeholders in an effort to resolve this issue. However, the Minister of State should support the concept of an agreed protocol in consultation with the IFA, landowners and farming authorities. Such a protocol should be put in place as soon as possible. In that way, as soon as such a weather alert is received, the relevant authorities would have to act appropriately by opening sluice-gates, thus avoiding the decimation of family incomes and livelihoods as we have recently witnessed.
The Minister of State should also put in place a compensation package as was done two years ago. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine should ask his officials to ascertain and quantify the losses in conjunction with farming organisations. A mechanism should then be agreed to replenish feed to an equivalent cost for farmers who have been affected.
I thank the Cheann Comhairle for selecting this matter. I also thank Deputy Cowen for raising the issue. At the outset, I agree with his remarks on the emergency services which did sterling work in parts of the country both last night and this morning to help citizens to deal with the appalling flooding events, particularly in the south west. I agree with him that work needs to be recognised in this House.
This topic gives me the opportunity to address the problems with flooding on the Shannon Callows. Having extensively toured the Callows area last year, accompanied by public representatives, IFA representatives and local residents, to see the situation for myself and to talk through the issues, I am conscious of the serious impact both on farming and the environment in the area due to flooding.
I recognise that the Shannon Callows is an important asset to the farming community. Traditional farming practices are recognised as contributing to the economic and social management of this unique area. I accept that the recent pattern of flooding to the Callows has caused extensive hardship to many members of the community.
In general, this summer's flooding arises from the restricted capacity of the River Shannon at this location. Flooding can occur as a result of large flows from either the River Suck, the upper Shannon from Lough Ree or a combination of both. The inflow from the River Brosna also contributes to flooding in this area.
June has been a very wet month. Although there are still two days left in the month, it is already the wettest June on record at most of the stations in the Shannon catchment. Some of these stations also experienced their highest or second highest ever daily rainfall for June. As a general indication, rainfall in this area has been between two and three times the long-term average for June. We have therefore suffered a major problem this month because of the rainfall.
Due to the bout of heavy and prolonged rainfall in early June water levels in the Shannon have risen, particularly in the Callows area. I have reviewed an initial report on the impact of this flooding event and the photos provided have given me a graphic appreciation of the scope of lands affected.
I have been proactively monitoring the situation. As Deputy Cowen said, I took the opportunity of organising a meeting in Leinster House with local elected representatives in the affected constituencies along the Shannon basin. Following that meeting, I have instructed that another meeting with local representatives be organised shortly with senior representatives of both Waterways Ireland and the ESB in attendance.
Waterways Ireland is one of the six North-South implementation bodies established under the British-Irish Agreement in 1999. Waterways Ireland has responsibility for the management, maintenance, development and restoration of inland navigable waterways, principally for recreational purposes.
Operational control of water flows and levels on the Shannon is a matter for both Waterways Ireland and the ESB. The Office of Public Works has no direct responsibility in this regard.
I will examine this issue closely, as to whether or not statutory responsibility should reside within our Department. It is precious little help to the Deputy and his constituency colleagues if we are the lead agency but cannot set water levels across the Shannon, which is currently the statutory position. I recognise that is a contradiction and so I intend to examine it closely.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and I acknowledge his efforts in keeping public representatives from the Shannon area informed of the progress he envisages. I seek a commitment from the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, that this process is being initiated with the stated objective of formulating a protocol which, in the event of a weather warning being issued by Met Éireann, will set in train a response which includes consultation with the farming community and, in turn, a release of the gates so as to negate the effect such torrential rainfall would have on these areas.
Will the Minister of State commit in this House, where as he stated it is appropriate to do so, to consult with his colleagues, in particular the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and request that he, in conjunction with his officials and the farming authorities, ascertain the losses incurred with a view to bringing forward a package which would compensate these farmers and their families in that regard? For farmers to consider selling stock at this stage is incomprehensible in terms of the farm management process in any given year.
Will the Minister of State commit to the establishment of a protocol to ensure this does not happen again? I am not suggesting this only happened in recent weeks for the first time. I acknowledge it has happened in the past. It is incumbent on us to resolve this issue. Also, will the Minister of State undertake to consult with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and request that he, in consultation with his officials, would seek to bring forward a package which would meet with the approval of the farming community?
My understanding is that there is a protocol in place between Waterways Ireland and the ESB. However, we need to quickly establish the veracity of that protocol. The view locally is that it has not worked. I have no difficulty with the OPW being part and parcel of that protocol, if necessary. This is not rocket science. It should be the case that farmers in the Callows area are alerted by text from the public authorities, be they local authorities, the ESB, Waterways Ireland or the OPW, to severe oncoming weather. However, that has not happened. As far as I am aware it has happened in places such as Gort, where a protocol was put in place between the OPW and Galway County Council. If it can be done in Gort it can be done in respect of the Callows. There is no reason this cannot be done through the social media. I agree with the Deputy that it is important that protocol is put in place and that it is robust in terms of getting information to farmers, in particular when severe weather is forecast. I will take up that matter with the two other agencies involved.
On compensation, I do not want to give hope to the Deputy that a compensation package could be put in place tomorrow. It would be dishonest of me to do that. However, I will take up the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Deputy Cowen mentioned that a similar package was put in place two years ago. I will investigate the extent of that package. I acknowledge the severe economic difficulties which faces farmers along the Callows area as a result of this flooding. While as stated by the Deputy this is a historic problem, the situation has worsened as a result of changing weather patterns in this country and climate change. I will engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the potential of putting in place a compensation package. In undertaking to engage with the Minister, I do not wish to give the Deputy false hope that a compensation will be put in place tomorrow. It would be dishonest of me to do so.