Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

10:30 am

Róisín Garvey (Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. I do not know if our paths have crossed previously. Last winter was the wettest ever recorded in Ireland. Over 30 towns and villages experienced flooding, with over 600 homes evacuated. Some €48 million is due to be spent by 2021 on flood defences alone. Flooding and storm damage have cost the taxpayer over €3 billion in the last three decades. This is only the tip of iceberg as we face into a very uncertain future with climate change. It is time for a national discussion on how we can work with our natural environment to manage flood risk. Today, I wish to focus on nature-based solutions in conjunction with harder engineering solutions.

Flooding issues are only going to increase over the coming years. Some 66 places along the Shannon alone have been highlighted as being at risk of flooding. We are all fully aware of the scale of the problem, but are we doing enough to deal with it? One in 100 year events are now happening every two to three years. These events cause massive disruption to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Pumps and sandbanks will no longer cut the mustard. Changes in land usage have played a major part in higher flood risks across the country. Peatlands, woodlands, callows and wetlands naturally store water and hold it back from rivers. Removing them has increased the risk of flooding downstream from where they were. River banks have burst that never did so previously. Up to six weeks of rain is falling in one evening. Houses and businesses struggle to get flood insurance. We could talk forever about the ridiculousness of the insurance companies being unwilling to provide flood insurance even after we have spent millions on flood defences in those areas.

Hard engineering is not the only solution. We must look at the sources of flooding. Traditionally, towns and cities were built on higher ground, but as they expand they do so to lower-lying lands more prone to flooding. Clearing vegetation and forest has caused much flooding and cost us a great deal of money for flood defences. When there are woodlands the water soaks more easily into the soil, and when it travels underground it travels more slowly. People do not realise the value we must attach to the speed at which water flows. The slower the water flows, the less flooding there is. We must do everything in our power to slow down the speed of water as well. Undrained bogs have great potential to absorb water, reducing the amount arriving into rivers. Compared with the rest of Europe, we are doing very little on softer and cheaper solutions. There are some excellent examples in the rest of Europe, one of which I will mention momentarily. We must have a whole-landscape approach. It is similar to a sieve full of water. If one blocks a few holes with hard infrastructure, the water will go out through the other holes. It is not going to disappear. It might move from one place, but we have to deal with it in the proper catchment area.

Although there is definitely a need for some short-term hard engineering solutions, and I thank the Minister of State for the support we are receiving for Clonlara, we must also come up with a long-term solution to flood risk management. We cannot continue to put plasters on the wounds as they occur. There must be long-term planning. We have known about this problem for years, and we know it is worse than ever and going to get even worse. We must have proper plans. Our neighbours in the UK have faced the sources of flooding by doing more than just building dams and walls. I will refer to one place. Perhaps we will visit it after the Covid-19 travel ban is lifted or we will invite the people there to visit us. Pickering in England had four devastating floods in the last eight years. It featured on the Irish news programmes. The community spearheaded a project to save the town from flooding. People in the area had been through enough mental anguish and felt it was time they took responsibility and got involved. They were offered flood walls, but they knew these would just cause problems for other villages downstream from them. What a beautiful way to think about it. They saw that it would save their town but make a mess of the next one. We have seen that happen in Ireland. Fair play to the community of Pickering.

The Environment Agency in the UK suggested hard structures, and the people had two responses to that. First, they said it would pass the water problem on and, second, the town is beautiful and tourists visit it, but the hard walls would be ugly. Aesthetics matter to people where they live. The Environment Agency asked the people what solutions they had. Luckily, one of the local lads saw an advertisement in a newspaper from some academics in Oxford seeking to engage with communities on catchment-based solutions. The academics were experts in topography, geography, upstream storage and landscape management.The academics and the locals worked together. Instead of an environmental agency or local authority looking for millions of euro to pay consultants to come up with some ideas which would be imposed upon a community, the academics and locals worked together and what they did was very interesting. They constructed a giant bund to store 100,000 cu. m of water upstream from the town but they did it in a low-lying, grass covered way so that even though it was hard infrastructure, it blended in with the landscape. They also constructed small wooden debris dams along the streams feeding into the river. These were constructed by members of the community using existing wood in the area. They also planted thousands of trees. When I hear Members talking about dredging rivers and cutting trees, it makes me wonder if we understand the cyclical nature of climate change at all. Trees are actually columns of water, their roots hold onto soil, stopping erosion and they also slow down the speed with which the water flows. The community also planted lots of heather bales, another simple way of slowing down water in rivers. The heather was planted along the ditches and the community also rewetted bogs. We all know that bogs are giant sponges. In the context of a climate and biodiversity emergency, we have bogs that can be rewetted. While I fully respect people's turbary rights, we must consider the fact that bogs are massive sponges. We have drains in most of our bogs at the moment, which is contributing to the flooding problem. The aim was to get the water to flow in different ways along different routes and to come up with a holistic plan. Together, all of these elements have created natural resistances and prevented the town from being flooded since 2015. Not only that but it was done at a fifth of the cost of the alternative scheme. It is more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, everyone is happy and it cost less. Everybody was involved, empowered and engaged. It cost €500,000 rather than €2.5 million.

A combination of hard and soft solutions is what is needed, not all of one or the other. I am not saying that we should just plant trees and that will sort everything out. I am not saying that we should never build walls but we must have a holistic approach. Dr. Conor Murphy of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units has said that wetter winters are guaranteed due to our changing climate, and bad planning means that people are living in flood prone areas. He noted that hard engineering works have been our go-to solution but now we need solutions on a catchment scale. I have a friend who owns 6 acres of land beside the estuary in Querrin which was pure wet. He planted a woodland nine years ago and the impact is phenomenal. He stopped his own farm from being flooded and has a beautiful nature reserve on his land. It is a win-win situation for everybody. He has restored the land and prevented all of his neighbours from being flooded as well. It is time to take an holistic approach and I look forward to working with the Minister of State on this. We have a lot to do.

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