Seanad debates

Friday, 4 December 2009

Interim Report on Flooding on River Shannon, November 2000: Statements


2:00 pm

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)

I thank all Senators who contributed to what was a most constructive and positive debate. I noted at least a couple of dozen points that were made and I will try to respond to them briefly.

Senator McFadden inquired about the request for assistance from Europe. That was addressed in some detail by the Minister for Finance in the Dáil yesterday. He attended an ECOFIN meeting and he discussed the matter with the Commission. Official contacts have been made. We have ten weeks to apply for aid to the EU solidarity fund. A high minimum threshold of damage is required to be eligible for assistance. It will take us a little time to collate the damage. We will only make an application if it is likely to be accepted. We will probably do that in some weeks' time when a full assessment of the damage has been carried out. While areas are still covered by flood waters it is not always possible to assess damage. It is a little like the River Shannon; when it floods it takes a while for the waters to rise. It takes a while for the bill to rise as well.

With regard to a state of emergency, the local authorities, the Garda or Health Service Executive can invoke the major emergency plan. Whether such a state was formally proclaimed or not the fact is that the emergency services in the affected parts of the country worked together quickly and in most cases well. One or two deficiencies were apparent and I will refer to them later.

We have hydro-electric plants on the Shannon, the Lee and the Liffey. In general, people are in favour of alternative energy sources that do not rely on oil, gas, coal or peat, but there is a potential conflict of interests between what one might do strictly in the interests of flood management and what one might do in the interests of electricity generation. To be fair to the ESB, when I went to Ardnacrusha last Saturday week, I was informed that what it was doing at that time was entirely in the interests of mitigating flood damage. Events since have shown that downstream from Ardnacrusha, the situation has actually improved and the great fears about high tides and flood waters in Limerick and Clare villages fortunately have not come to pass because the river level lowered.

Several Senators said we did not need reports. We need these CFRAM studies. They are as a result of the EU directive and are very comprehensive studies of river basins and catchments. I accept we need action and there are many things on which action can be taken without waiting for completion of those studies. Senators' concern might be that studies might hold up action but in this case, they will not. There are many things on which we can act in the interim, partly on the basis of previous reports and partly on the basis of submissions from local authorities.

In the case of Cork, the Lee CFRAM is practically finished. All we have to do is integrate the experience of recent weeks into the study to ensure it is comprehensive and then build an implementation plan. Last night on the Adjournment Debate, I discussed the quay walls in Cork with Senator Buttimer. I do not propose to add to that because I expressed myself better on that subject last night than I might do today.

Senator McFadden referred to exporting water. I will confine it to within this country. I remember a trade unionists who is also a broadcaster on local radio station being enormously exercised about the notion that water from the River Shannon might be transported to Dublin. The volume of water on the Shannon is vast. If one reads the Bible, the River Jordan was once a substantial river but now there is scarcely more of a water flow in it than in one of the ditches on my farm. There might have been a fear that the River Shannon would somehow be reduced to a tiny waterway because of the greedy Dubliners. Perhaps this flood event will make everybody more realistic.

Perhaps there is a case for some kind of water storage, in particular during flood times, which can subsequently be transported to Dublin. A decade or two ago, water shortages in Dublin were a very regular feature. However, partly because of the extremely wet summers, this has not been a noticeable problem in the recent past but I suppose it will be in the future. There might be a complementarity of needs - too much water in the west and not enough in the east. According to some climate change scenarios, that will accentuate.

Senator McFadden raised the question of flood defences. In the Athlone area, the river is extremely wide and, therefore, it is not greatly constricted. Obviously, we will look at the case of Athlone but, in particular, that of Ballinasloe as to what may be needed in those areas.

In regard to co-ordination and whether a single authority should be responsible, the decision to create a single authority for the River Shannon is a major policy issue because such an authority would need to take over a diverse range of powers, activities and responsibilities, such as electricity generation, tourism, infrastructure, water quality and extraction, waste water disposal, flood risk management and a range of environmental responsibilities, and there is quite a significant dimension there. When I travelled down the Shannon callows, I thought of the corncrake in the rushes and so on.

In 2004, which was subsequent to the reports we are formally discussing, the Government decided to assign lead agency responsibility to the OPW to minimise flood risk in a proactive catchment based approach. This may meet the requirement to co-ordinate the efforts of those bodies under the CFRAMs programme and floods directive which is to be transposed later this month and which will put the OPW, as the lead agency, in a very strong position to co-ordinate activities in all matters relating to flood management.

"Co-ordination" is the right word because I cannot imagine a situation where any other agency would, or should, be in a position to give instructions to the ESB on how it is conducted. There are too many safety considerations. There should be co-ordination between the ESB and other agencies and there may need to be further discussions as to how the requirements of electricity generation can be more complementary to minimising flood risk, in particular in periods of time when there are no floods. We know there is a greater risk of flooding in certain seasons of the year, namely, high summer and parts of the winter, than in September, October or May. It is more a question of bringing people together and getting them to co-operate in ways in which they reinforce each other's efforts.

Planning must change, as Senator Hanafin pointed out. The guidelines should be reinforced by the experience of what has happened over the past two weeks. I find it difficult to imagine that local authorities, planners, directors of services and even An Bord Pleanála would be able to ignore flood plain risk. In certain instances, there may be measures which can be taken to address that. We must be realistic about it. For example, I spoke to a developer in Portarlington a few months ago who offered to construct flood defences, of the type the OPW is doing, for half the town. Those are things at which we can look.

Dredging, drains, and so on, can perhaps make an important contribution but they will not be a panacea. If we have the level of rain we had over the past two weeks, we will have flooding. However, would we have had the flooding in Sallins if the culverts in the unfinished estate had not been blocked? One could still mitigate the effect and stop it happening in certain places but one would not be able to stop it happening everywhere.

I hardly need to reiterate the point that where defences have been put in place, they have shown positive results. Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir did not flood. Clonmel was better at least in the part protected by phase one.

I got notification yesterday from an insurance company, although I cannot remember which one, stating that it would make advance payments. That is required in many cases. It may be impossible to instantly arrive at a complete assessment of the damage but advance payments can get around that problem and any remaining amounts can be provided later.

Asking the ESB to offset the cost of operating dehumidifiers in electricity bills is an interesting idea. There is no doubt that dehumidifiers can play an important role, particularly for those who live in older houses.

I was briefed by gardaí in Athlone on the incidence of theft and looting. Such deplorable acts were rare in that town but I have heard anecdotes about their occurrence elsewhere in the country. Gardaí in Athlone are conducting regular patrols of areas abandoned owing to flooding.

My attention was drawn to Cockermouth when one of my cousins told me about the owner of a lingerie shop there called Jan Mansergh. Ms Mansergh who must be a distant relative was washed out of her premises after the town's one in 100 year defences were, unfortunately, completely defeated by 12 inches of rain in 24 hours. Tragically, the death toll as a result of the flooding is now six. We are building similar defences to those in Cockermouth but we must be clear that these alone will not guarantee protection in all eventualities. We do not know what the climate will do next. In August 2008 I visited Newcastlewest after it had experienced what was scientifically described as a one in 700 years flood event. Unfortunately, I am not confident that town's inhabitants and their descendants will be able to rest easy in their beds until 2708. The OPW is working in Newcastlewest but most of us would exercise caution in respect of the parameters indicated by past events.

We should not attribute everything to climate change because for centuries this country has suffered serious floods. Physical changes in the landscape also contribute to the impact of flooding. A couple of decades ago road widening works in a town in my constituency resulted in a narrowing of the riverbed. It is not surprising, therefore, that the frequency of flooding in that town has since increased. The physical landscape can change over a relatively short space of time. When the famous French writer, Victor Hugo, visited the battlefield of Waterloo 40 years after the battle had been fought, he found that the landscape had changed significantly.

In one town in the south east which is studying flood proposals objections have been raised to flood walls because they would interfere with views of the river. One councillor told me he had grown up beside the river and liked to listen to the lap of the water. Perhaps he will be able to enjoy the lap of water when it reaches his bedroom.

Senator Quinn raised an interesting issue on collecting data on water levels between floods. Water gauges have been installed on the Suir upriver from Clonmel to give the town several hours' warning of floods. Householders in Cork and the Glucksman Gallery would have welcomed such advance notice. We are conducting a study of the feasibility of having a national flood risk warning system which, if it is at all affordable, should at least be put in place in the areas most vulnerable to flooding. As we do not have control over the elements, it would be unrealistic for the Government to guarantee this will never happen again but we can at least put better warning systems in place.

There is a lot that people can do for themselves. Carlow and Arklow have purchased door barriers which can be mounted in the event of a flood warning. These barriers do not create significant aesthetic or technical problems. I visited a bungalow in south Sligo several weeks after it had been flooded last year. It was built too close to a river but the owner had constructed a bank around it to prevent inundation. This week the OPW built an earthen defence in Shannon Banks because of fears that the village would be hit by tidal flooding on top of what was coming down the river. That bank was completed. The OPW received an indemnity from Limerick County Council because if there had not been a flood we would not have been able to do it for approximately two years because we would have had to consult so many authorities, national parks and so on, and there might have been lots of objections. With some houses flooded, however, and many more under threat of worse flooding, everybody was only too glad to get it done. Like Senators Boyle and Buttimer I welcome the ending of the Cork emergency. The catchment flood risk assessment and management study for Cork will be ready by next month.

It is not the case that we are only now waking up to the problem. We have been doing a lot of work, and have been preparing work over the past ten years, and particularly in the past five. There is a great deal of work under way but it is not enough to prevent the sort of thing that happened recently. My feeling is that in a best-case scenario we will be running to stand still. We will be able to protect many areas, at least on most occasions but as we do that other problem areas will emerge. We cannot paint too rosy or optimistic a picture. There is a great deal of work to be done.

It is unusual to mention moneys in a budget context but since both the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have stated this publically we will have €50 million next year. Of that, €5 million will be carried over from this year for flood defences and minor relief work schemes. Several Senators mentioned projects that are not particularly costly in respect of certain areas. I announced approximately 20 projects below €500,000, three or four, or maybe half a dozen of which, are in Kerry. There is a great deal of useful work to be done. It is for the local authority to apply to the OPW under the minor inland flood relief work scheme or the coastal flood relief work scheme. There is lots of scope for local authorities as they clear up and assess damage to decide whether there are relatively limited works that could be done straightaway and do not require any deep study. I am not referring to massive town defences such as are required in Mallow, Fermoy, Clonmel and Ennis and so on. I am pleased that facility is there and I hope that local authorities will make use of it.

Senator Butler referred to the national development plan. Flood relief is part of that plan. There have been cutbacks in the plan and its implementation has been extended over a longer period but it is generally accepted that flood protection is a high priority. The McCarthy report did not suggest that flood relief was a luxury, an optional extra or an extravagance; far from it. Somebody mentioned spare capacity in the construction industry. The OPW in Shannon Banks rang a construction company to get 12 lorries to build the bank and was told it could have 24 lorries if it liked. I thank the Senators for their contributions. I hope I have replied to most of the points.


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