Wednesday, 20 January 2016
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad on the subject of flooding and flood risk management. I look forward to a constructive discussion and debate which will inform the Government’s approach to managing flood risk in the future.
As we all know, flooding is a natural phenomenon and in recent weeks we have all seen the devastating impact it can have on communities. At the start of this debate, my first thoughts and words must be with those who have suffered because of the dreadful storms and floods of the last month. I refer in particular to those families whose homes have been flooded, marooned or evacuated, those whose livelihoods have been threatened and those who have spent long, anxious days and nights, over a holiday period during what should have been a joyous period for many families, waiting and assessing the possible impact of the latest weather forecast.
The Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Government Ministers and I have visited many of those affected, witnessing at first hand the devastation to their peace of mind and, unfortunately, in many cases their property. The impacts of flooding do not discriminate and all parts of society were affected. The Taoiseach has made it clear that the Government stands with the people and communities affected and will give them every support and assistance possible as they set about rebuilding their lives, but will also go further in considering the long-term measures we can take to, where possible, protect communities and mitigate against the impact of flooding.
I want to mention, in particular, the local volunteers who gave up their own comfort and time with their families over the Christmas period to give practical and emotional support to their neighbours and communities. The true strength of people sometimes shines in its best light during the worst of circumstances. We all saw this from people helping with sandbagging, providing clothes, drinks, meals and accommodation. There is no doubt that, without that support, the impact of the floods would have been more serious.
The Government’s response has involved almost every arm of the State. In particular, I acknowledge the outstanding work and dedication of the staff of the local authorities, Met Éireann, the Office of Public Works, OPW, members of our Defence Forces, the Civil Defence, the Coast Guard and the Irish Red Cross, which worked endlessly and tirelessly throughout Christmas in the most difficult of circumstances.
Of particular note has been the extent of the inter-agency co-operation which includes the Defence Forces. There have been approximately 2,700 Defence Forces deployments throughout the period of severe weather to assist local authorities. In addition, local authorities continue to work together to share resources, staff, plant and equipment, including pumps and sandbags. The floods led to almost 600 households being evacuated. It is no comfort to those waiting to reoccupy their homes that the co-ordinated response by communities and Government prevented even greater damage from being inflicted.
Since the start of December, ESB Networks has reconnected over 350,000 customers, often in very poor weather conditions. Irish Water responded to 200 incidents where there was a risk to the delivery of drinking water and wastewater services. The storms resulted in 15,000 calls for assistance to local authority helplines. From the start of these storms, the Government made clear it would and, indeed, did provide all necessary help and support to the communities affected not alone in terms of the immediate practical and physical help I referred to earlier, but also the practical financial assistance that was required.
For example, the Department of Social Protection was available in affected areas to advise on the vital financial help available through the humanitarian assistance scheme. At the start of this week, emergency payments have been made to some 360 households, with expenditure of over €344,000 to date. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has introduced several critical measures to address the impact of the storms and flooding on farms. These include relaxing the rules around the movement of livestock, guidance on flooded slurry tanks, the deferral of inspections and the provision of emergency feed. In view of the likely long-term damage to fodder supplies, a fodder aid scheme for flooded areas has also been introduced by my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney.
As Senators on both sides of the House will know, small businesses were badly hit, particularly those that could not access flood insurance. The Government targeted those businesses with a simple, but effective, scheme operated by the Irish Red Cross. I again reiterate my thanks to it for facilitating the scheme. The Government initially made €5 million available to that scheme for businesses, and has now extended it to include community, voluntary and sporting organisations which suffered flood damage. At the start of this week, the Irish Red Cross indicated that a total of 219 applications have been received and €530,000 has been disbursed so far under the first stage of the scheme. Getting immediate payments to people, albeit relatively small payments, without having to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops was the Government's priority, which could not have been facilitated without the co-operation of local authorities and the Irish Red Cross.
Dealing with a flooding event requires resources during the event and after for the associated clean-up. Undoubtedly, the greatest burden and responsibility for the clean-up will fall on local authorities. In addition to the €18 million already allocated, the Government has asked local authorities to estimate the damage caused to public infrastructure. Many roads and bridges were damaged or, in some instances, swept away. Once compiled, the Government has made it clear that this will be addressed in terms of the funding required by local authorities.
Under the Government’s new capital investment plan, the programme of investment will be stepped up considerably, with over €430 million earmarked for flood defences by 2021. I want to be very clear about this because some people have sought to make a political gain out of this crisis. We will spend more on flood defences over the next five years than we, as a country, have spent over the past 20 years. For what is it is worth, that includes the entire period of the Celtic tiger. We are investing in flood defences and there is no shortfall of money. People should stop scaring the public. It would be nice if some were here to listen to us.
In the next six years, the Government will invest more in flood defences than has been invested by Governments over the past 20 years. That is our record in government. The Government has already committed to schemes in Bandon and Crossmolina, two areas that were significantly impacted by flooding in recent weeks. As a country, we have to prepare ourselves for extreme weather and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. We cannot hide from its reality.
Considerable progress has been made by the OPW on the CFRAM programme, Ireland's first national flood management plan. This includes over 300 locations where the OPW is assessing whether flood defensive measures are required and feasible.This programme is central to the assessment of flood risk, planning for flood risk management and the subsequent implementation of feasible flood mitigation measures.
Following extensive public consultation, the CFRAM flood risk management plans will be finalised by the end of the year. People have mentioned how these are required by the EU floods directive. While we are happy to move towards compliance, we are going further by factoring in climate change and carrying out more consultation with communities than is required by the directive to ensure that we get the schemes right.
The CFRAM programme involves six study areas, one being the Shannon catchment, and has involved the OPW modelling 2,075 km of river. The River Shannon co-ordination group, established by the Taoiseach in recent weeks, will draw on the full technical expertise of the OPW and co-ordinate the flood risk-related work of relevant bodies from local level to Departments and other State agencies. The group's terms of reference will be published in the coming days. It will have the necessary powers. Its primary function will be to get on with the job of delivering flood relief plans in the 66 areas of the Shannon that have been identified as being at risk of flooding. It will also ensure that each of the agencies involved publishes its work plans. We will publish the minutes of the group's meetings, with those meetings occurring on a quarterly basis at least. Furthermore, we will give the group the power and authority to make recommendations to the Government on legislative or regulatory changes.
Work on the CFRAM programme will contribute to the new flood forecasting and warning service. It is vital that we have a long-term forecasting system, which we currently do not. On 5 January, the Government decision to proceed with this service was announced. We must also ensure that our planning system gives sufficient consideration to flood risk. I have engaged with Senators on this matter in the past year and a half. We know about the legacy of bad planning. We must ensure that our planning system gives sufficient consideration to flood risk. The OPW's CFRAM maps will be central to informing on the risks of flood plains and development. It means that more evidence and greater common sense will have to be applied to planning decisions, which entails complying with the flood risk planning guidelines that were published in 2009.
The State's investment in new flood defences and its reforming of planning will deliver benefits to local communities that were traditionally affected by flooding. Last week, I joined the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other Ministers in meeting the CEOs of the insurance industry to communicate to them the benefits of the OPW's flood defence schemes. The meeting was constructive and the industry has agreed to provide additional data on the provision of cover and to consider further the particular issue of cover for areas protected where the State has invested in flood defences. The industry must examine the question of demountables again. Sometimes, they are the best or only viable solution. They worked in towns during the recent storms. It is not acceptable that insurance cover is not available where demountables have been installed and work. I hope that the insurance industry will reflect on this, which it has undertaken to do.
A broader review by the Department of Finance of options for insurance for properties in flood areas is under way. This will examine international best practice. Whoever is in government this summer will have policy options, which I hope will be acted upon. The Department's work in this regard, along with the current phase of engagement with the industry, will provide us with those policy options.
In recent weeks, I have visited many of the worst affected towns, from Bandon and Skibbereen to Crossmolina, Graiguenamanagh, Thomastown, Ballinasloe and, several times, Athlone. I also visited areas in my constituency. Besides showing me the devastation from flooding and the strength of people and communities, these visits highlighted how more than anything during these events people wanted an assurance that the Government could provide them with support in response to the flooding and that it was planning to mitigate the risk from flooding in the future. I want to offer people that assurance. The Government can provide it, and has done so. It has responded with people and by supporting communities. It has provided the funding for prioritised investment of feasible flood defence schemes and other flood protection measures. This year, it will compete the plans, through the CFRAM programme, that will inform the prioritised investment. I assure Senators on all sides of the House that the Government is working with those affected by flooding as they rebuild their lives, communities and businesses.
I thank the Senators who approached me - others will do so today - with examples of the practical actions that are required and feedback from their communities. I assure the House of my willingness to work with all Senators in the interests of getting this right. I pay tribute again to all of the agencies, volunteers and communities who worked so hard and gave so much support to one another in recent weeks. Their efforts prevented even more devastating impacts from flooding. They are the real heroes of what has been a national crisis. I look forward to a constructive and informative debate.
It gave hope to local people who were devastated by what happened. One cannot imagine how awful it has been for them unless one walks in their shoes. For many, their homes will never be the same again.
I will draw on the Minister of State's point about climate change. Globally, 2014 was the warmest year since records started. December 2015 was the wettest month ever recorded in Ireland. Climate change is happening under our noses. It has not gained traction with most people in Ireland, but we must face up to it and take action. Even though we are only 4.5 million people, we should be able to give the world leadership in reducing CO2 submissions and stopping the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
Turning to my personal experience, there was serious flooding in 2014 in Nutgrove Avenue close to where I live. I heard about it on the 8 a.m. news. I went there immediately. Nutgrove Avenue and the roads leading from it were completely flooded. People's homes were devastated. Six or seven little businesses were flooded and could no longer operate. As a business person, I had empathy for them. It was shocking to see.
I called Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council immediately. An engineer and another gentleman came out to the site. Fortunately, I had trained in building construction and understood what had happened. The culvert's screen for scrub and branches on the Little Dargle river in Loreto Park had become blocked, preventing water from flowing freely.
From then on, I worked closely with Mr. Paul Faughnan, the senior executive engineer for the council. In the following months, he undertook a study of the area's flooding. He concurred with me that a new screen was required. I am delighted to say that, three months ago, a state-of-the-art screen was installed on the culvert on the Little Dargle river in Loreto Park. The Minister of State referred to bad planning and so on, but defence mechanisms must be put in place immediately. I knew that the old screen was not up to scratch to prevent flooding. Manholes had also been blocked. Keeping those clear is a case of simple housekeeping. Porous covers have now been put on them. That will allow water to drain away more freely. The new screen for the culvert is of a high quality and was not cheap. It is magnificent to look at, a work of art and modern. Anyone could see that it was well designed and that there would be no further flooding.
During the floods across Ireland, a Nutgrove Avenue resident, Mrs. Honora Fitzsimons, rang to thank me for my help in getting the new culvert screen installed. She stated that she could now rest easy at night. Mr. Robbie Campbell of Campbell Motors and Mr. Peter Phelan, whose livelihoods were put in jeopardy by the 2014 flooding, have thanked me for fighting their corner.It is not about brain surgery, it is about action. While the planners knew the area was a possible flood plain, the apartments in Athlone are a perfect example of it. I compliment Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Mr. Paul Faughnan on the energy and passion they put into making sure it will never happen again. I am confident there will be no more flooding in Loreto Avenue because of what has been installed on the Little Dargle river. I thank them sincerely. The people can now sleep and rest at night.
I welcome the Minister of State. This is one of the most important debates we have had given that many communities have suffered much due to the flood event. My two colleagues, Senator Michael Mullen and Senator Hildegarde Naughten, who will contribute after me, are in the middle of it on the River Shannon and in Galway, in particular. Like Senator Mary White, I compliment the Minister of State on the work done recently on the River Dargle. This issue is so serious that party politics does not come into it when looking for somebody to blame, apart maybe from the Lord above.
Climate change is very important. COP21 and the agreement signed in Paris by all the various countries and our Climate Change Bill will have a major role to play. That puts the onus on the Minister right down to the people in the community. The Minister of State thanked the people in the community. People are helping each other and farmers are looking after one another's stock which has been moved from farm to farm. Neighbours, local authorities and the Defence Forces are all pulling together. Having said that, there is an onus on each of us to look at climate change and the Climate Change Bill. The plan is being drawn up with all of the sectors and all the Departments coming together to ensure we do our best because prevention is better than the cure. I acknowledge the work that has been done. As the Minister of State said, more will be invested in five years than has been invested for the past 20 years. It is not as if rain does not happen, because it does. We have to ensure we look to work with the climate and work with the rivers.
In the Netherlands, the people work with the rivers. A particular project there, the exact name of which does not come to mind, is room for the river. That is a very important project being undertaken by the Dutch people. It was developed in conjunction with the local community and local knowledge. We have seen people standing on places that have not flooded for 20 years. The cause of that flooding is climate change and we have to ensure that we take the issue seriously.
Responding to the flooding caused by storm Desmond, the Government announced the provision of €5 million in emergency funding and that €8 million was being made available to local authorities. One of the other speakers complimented the Minister of State on how fast he reacted to ensure that funding was made available quickly to the people on the ground. Last year, the Government started the final part of its proactive planning programme to develop feasible flood risk management solutions for 300 areas across the country at most significant risk from flooding. The Minister of State mentioned the CFRAM programme. In all my time in local government, the CFRAM programme is one of the most important ones that has been initiated. There is the CFRAM programme, the core implementation strategy and the Government flood risk policy which is being implemented by the various steering groups. This has involved the surveying and modelling of a 6,700 km watercourse and the production of approximately 40,000 individual flood maps, including those required by EU directive, as the Minister of State said. All of these are available online and people can go into them and check their local areas.
Extensive public consultation, including local knowledge, is very important as is communities working together. This includes meeting with the local representatives and local authority councillors to ensure implementation of the CFRAM programme and exhibiting and proactively discussing draft flood maps to gain additional knowledge which informs that development. I am aware the Minster of State is actively engaged in doing that with the flood risk management plans and 300 areas are on target to be completed by 2016. The €430 million provided in the six year programme for flood defences is welcome. Coming from Galway, I have heard people say the Government is working on it. Many people have asked if money is being made available. I said €430 million is being made available over five years and it is welcome. The European Investment Bank has agreed to provide €200 million in investment to Ireland to tackle flood prevention. The Minister is in Brussels today meeting officials about flood risk management because of the suffering Ireland has endured.
The Minister of State mentioned the meeting with the insurance industry. I listened to them on the radio. Not providing insurance cover where flood defence schemes are working is a cop out. It is asking people to pay money for nothing. Such schemes have worked in other European countries. The demountables work and the insurance companies should be made to insure people who have them. It is a cop out and they should go by international best practice. I hope they will come back to the Minister of State with that message; otherwise, legislation will have to be introduced to make them do it. If one cannot use the carrot, the stick will have to be used.
The River Shannon basin management co-ordination group was mentioned by the Minister of State. My colleagues will probably mention it too. This week, it was tasked with overseeing the River Shannon. We are being given powers to recommend legislative changes to Government. That is important. Setting up talking shops is one thing but the Minister of State has ensured that the River Shannon co-ordination group has teeth. It will oversee the roll-out of the flood defence measures in areas highlighted by his office and the works done by the CFRAM. It will meet on a quarterly basis and publish its work and will be tasked with overseeing the delivery of 66 flood plans. The Minister of State has done much work in his short period in office. He has a lot more to do and, hopefully, he will be here again to do it in the years to come. I thank the Opposition for acknowledging the work he has done since coming into office.
I welcome the Minister of State to the State. Like many other Senators, I start by offering my sympathy to those who were affected by flooding across the country in recent weeks. I commend all those who worked relentlessly to help defend homes, to help bring supplies, to rescue people and animals and all those involved in the clean up as the flood waters recede.
The devastation visited upon people has been colossal. We have seen it on the news every day. Politicians of all political persuasions and none have been wellie deep with those communities. It is nice that we are using our wellies other than for the National Ploughing Championships and Electric Picnic and that we are getting down and dirty and seeing the effects. People appreciate that because they need to see that we, as legislators, understand what is happening in their real lives.
It is important to realise that this is not the first time there has been flooding. It has happened on many occasions and it is not likely to be the last time it happens. I agree with other Senators that it cannot be an issue we make politics out of because people living with the effects of flooding do not want to see this issue as a political ping pong ball or used as a battering ram back and forth. At the same time, it is important that we remember that the political decisions we make in this House, and which have been made in the past, have effects in terms of what has happened and what will happen in the future. It has been thrashed out in the media, in political houses, in council chambers and at dinner tables right across the State that under planning laws developers were allowed to build on flood plains. For example, in 2003, a proposal to introduce a ban on building on flood plains was rejected by the Government. We must be serious about these issues. Last month, the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht urged a ban on future building on flood plains.Now the onus is on the Government and legislators to respond and act on that. As other Senators mentioned, it is to our great shame that insurance companies are not providing flood insurance for home owners and businesses. In parts of Dublin, where major flood defences were constructed, the fact that insurance companies are not providing insurance or are only doing so at a prohibitive cost is unacceptable. I agree with Senator Keane that it is a cop out. This is an important issue.
Earlier this month it was reported in the national press that progress reports from the OPW reveal that almost 20 major flood defence schemes that are necessary to protect built-up areas are behind schedule. The Minister of State mentioned these in his speech. The national press reported that some schemes across several counties are up to two years overdue because of delays in completing detailed designs or failure to appoint consultants to oversee the projects. Will the Minister of State provide an update on that? It is very important that we inform the public if anything has happened since then in order that the correct information is available, particularly for the relevant communities. Can we be given information on the completion of designs, appointment of consultants and the current position of those projects in view of the delays that were reported?
With regard to agriculture, will the Minister of State refer briefly to the effects of flooding on farming and, for example, on grass quality, although he might not be totally au faitwith this issue? Flooding and wet weather are costly for agriculture because they cause delays in, and a reduction of, the crop harvest and can cause significant damage to grassland. The type of sward, degree of weed infestation, the duration of flooding, soil type, amount of silt and debris and the flow rate of water determine the effects the flooding will have in terms of pasture damage and the subsequent recovery. Teagasc has warned, for example, that what will result in many flooded areas is a reduction in the quality of silage. The onslaught of flooding over a prolonged period is especially worrying because of the effects that will become evident in the months later in the year. That is when it will hit home for many farmers.
The Minister of State mentioned some of this in his opening statement but what interactions have taken place with farming organisations? Coupled with the work that has been done with homes and small businesses, what impact analysis is taking place on the effects on farmers? The terrible effects of the flooding that will become apparent later in the year in terms of crop yields, harvests and livestock must be assessed. Will there be an income plunge for farmers due to the increased costs associated with dealing with the flooding and the effects on grass or crop quality? Indeed, my local newspaper reports today that a Teagasc adviser, David Colbourne, warned that the level of flooding over recent weeks means we might not get the return of high-quality productive grasses. There are also the effects on the silage yield later in the year. I welcome the schemes that have been put in place by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. That will help in some way to compensate farmers. However, like those homes that are in danger of repeat flooding, these issues are likely to recur and the farming community, which often has difficulty accessing bank credit, particularly in times of need, requires some reassurance and guidance, especially when it takes months for the effects to be felt. This issue might fall off the political radar or there might be something else happening, so farmers must ensure their voices will be heard and that the effects of the flooding will be offset.
I have given my observations and posed a few questions to the Minister of State. As other Senators have said, it is important we do not play political ping-pong with this issue. This affects people's lives. While we are out canvassing, many people might forget about this issue, but it is still the daily reality for many people. We must ensure we carry out the future planning and that it is consistently on the radar. We are legislators and that is our job, first and foremost.
I am from Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary. In 1912, my grandfather moved from Mill Street after being flooded for three years in a row. He moved 300 yards into the town. Critically, it was a house that was 50 ft. higher above sea level. On 29 December last, 103 years later, Mill Street flooded again.
First, I commend the Minister of State on everything he has done. He was out in the middle of it all, seeing what the problems were when they were happening. He did not send officials out. He went out himself, and that is very important because when I spoke to the Minister of State, and I will do so again, he understood what we were talking about. This is critical in terms of trying to resolve a problem that will face us every year from now on. There is no question about that.
I also wish to express my recognition of, and sorrow for, the misery that has been visited on people throughout the country. The flooding has been ongoing for nearly two months in some areas. Senator Reilly is right that we tend to forget about it. The debate in my council last Monday was about whether it had enough salt for the rest of the year, as the council had used 100 tonnes of salt each night in recent nights. The debate moves on very quickly. However, what is left behind must be picked up by the people who are in the houses that have been flooded and who must deal with the aftermath.
I also commend all the services that were out working on this. The Minister of State referred to this. Many local authority staff were looking forward to a break at Christmas. Indeed, the holidays of most local authority staff finish on 31 December and many of them were taking their remaining leave days over the Christmas period. That all stopped once this problem started, and to a man and woman they got involved. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, was in my home town and in Clonmel on New Year's Day. Staff who had not been to bed at all the previous night were out with him to show him what had happened and to explain the situation. I commend those people along with the voluntary agencies, such as the Red Cross. There is a great group in my area called Carrick-on-Suir River Rescue. It did tremendous work getting people out of their houses. Indeed, its own premises was flooded and it lost much of its equipment. It must be borne in mind that on 29 December 2015, a total of 81 mm of rain fell in Carrick-on-Suir. It was the highest amount of rainfall in the country. It equates to a month's rain for a winter month and it fell in one night. It was going to be difficult for the system to deal with that. I also commend the national co-ordination team and, more particularly, the county co-ordinating teams. They met around the clock and, in my county, the team issued information every three hours.
The work being done by the Government to tackle this issue is important and essential. The Minister of State outlined the amount of money being invested in it. The Shannon did not flood for the first time in 2015. It has been flooding since before the foundation of the State. Many people have made promises about it, but this Government is putting money into it. I know most about my home town. In 1996, I stood in houses along the quays in Carrick-on-Suir with the former Minister, the late Hugh Coveney. We were wearing waders. On that day the late Minister, Hugh Coveney, gave a commitment that we would have a flood scheme. We have such a scheme and it has worked very well. However, on the night of 29 December 2015 it did not work. That was because 81 mm of rain fell. A culvert that is not as wide as the reporter's desk in front of us turned into a 3.5 ft river flowing down the N24 from the Clonmel side of the town into the town. It went in behind the walls and flowed not for an hour or two but for 15 hours. If flowed behind the walls and flooded all the houses we thought were safe. There was another problem. There are subterranean pumps but they tripped out and failed. They were supposed to take the surface water that comes normally and naturally from the flow off. They failed and the water rose and flooded the houses. That was our problem.
The other issue, specifically in my town but also generally, is that Irish Water now has responsibility for storm water and for sewerage. In some towns in this country - I know this because I was present at the start when we installed the sewage treatment plant the last time the Labour Party and Fine Gael were in government - some of the network is mixed up. I will go no further than that, but it is mixed up and must be sorted out.That is a fact. If it is happening in my town, then it is happening in other towns.
The road network has been badly damaged. Springs have come up through roads that never had springs before. I travelled a road not two miles from my house and what I saw was like a geyser coming up. The spring came up almost 3 ft. into the air from the road. Extensive damage has been done and it must be rectified.
I wish to discuss the financial supports that are available. I commend the Government on the work done to provide support and on the fact that €18 million has been made available to local authorities.
We had to take people out of their houses. People in local authority houses were offered accommodation, as were other people. Everyone was sorted out in terms of when they had to leave their houses. The local authority houses will be repaired. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, assured people in my town that the funding would be available and the houses would be repaired. The private houses under insurance will be repaired, but they will not get insurance again.
I was in the house of a 71-year-old widow. The worst flood ever in Carrick-on-Suir and in the country was in 1947. I only know the story of the great snow of 1947 from my late father. He told me how it all melted in three days. In Graiguenamanagh - it may have been the day the Minister of State was there - a 90-year-old man featured in the media. He said the last time he had seen water like it was in 1947. At the time it moved through quickly, because the ground was not waterlogged. In 1947 the highest water level ever was recorded in my town of Carrick-on-Suir.
Senator Keane mentioned local knowledge. In 1957 a woman's father-in-law brought a fisherman to the plot where her family intended to build a house and asked him what level he would advise for building the house. They built the house above the level the fishermen advised and it never flooded. It did not flood in 1996, when the two houses next to it were flooded. However, on 29 December 2015 it was flooded. The woman's flood insurance was removed by her company in 2012 for no reason. She had no flood insurance. The flood insurance cover of the two houses next to her which were flooded in 2009 was restored and the people there can now claim against their insurance, but she cannot claim anything. The Minister of State met representatives of the insurance companies. I call on him to tell them that story the next time they meet, because that is absolutely disgraceful. This woman was left with nothing. Most of her family have gone from the town, there is no insurance and her house was destroyed.
I have some practical suggestions. We can never fill enough sandbags. They are not going to decay or go away. They can be ready in the depots. Every place needed more sandbags. The Minister of State should ensure this happens. When we had a crisis with freezing weather in 2010 there was not enough salt in the country. Some of us began to find out about places in Russia that we had never heard of. We brought in salt, built depots and put the salt in them. Now, we have enough salt for a freeze lasting up to three weeks in Tipperary without bringing in another load of salt. We need pumps on stand-by in every area where there is flooding and they should be stored in the depots. We should not have to go looking for them when a pump fails, as happened in my town; they should be on stand-by. We need to put the finance into these areas. It does not represent a large outlay and we need to do it.
We also need to look at a proper separation between storm drains and sewerage in every town. Above all, we need to go back to what happened. I am referring to tidal water and I realise the Minister of State understands that. I also realise that in some parts of the country, no matter what we do, some fields will flood. In 1997, the late former Minister Noel Davern came to our town when we had the provisions to start the flood relief scheme. I put it to him at a town council meeting that the natural flood plains of the River Suir, which start three miles south of the town, should be put into a set-aside scheme for farmers. Under such a scheme farmers would be allowed to use the land in the summer for grazing and would be paid to allow the water in when the river could not hold it. That would prevent the river from flooding the streets in the town. His response was to laugh at me. I put it to the Minister of State that this is one of the solutions for the River Suir. Such a scheme should be established there, as it has been for many other rivers. I have spoken to other Ministers on the matter.
This is my last point. We need to bring the insurance companies to heel. What they are doing is unacceptable. On the way up to Dublin yesterday I listened to a consumer rights agent speaking about car insurance. They are doing it in that sector as well. In the case I referred to earlier, a company withdrew insurance from a woman who had lived in a house from 1957 to 2012 without being flooded, and she was left, on 29 December 2015, with her house under three feet of water and no insurance. That is unacceptable in any man's book. I call on the Minister of State to take up that issue.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of my friend and colleague Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice, who is in the Visitors' Gallery with a representative of the Carrick-on-Shannon Chamber of Commerce, and Mr. John Dunne, who has corresponded with the Minister of State on behalf of the Carrick-on-Shannon Chamber of Commerce. I will read out some of the relevant sections of the letter received by the Minister of State, and I would be grateful if the Minister of State responded to them.
I received a briefing from Fianna Fáil, which I will not read into the record because it is not overly complimentary to the Minister of State, with whom I get along well on a personal basis, although those involved are simply making political points. They call on the Minister of State to see to it that the Government supports affected property owners by ensuring adequate information transfer between the Office of Public Works and the insurance industry. This would help homeowners to access home insurance after flooding issues have been rectified. We suggest that the €15 million humanitarian relief package is unlikely to be enough, given the scale of the catastrophe.
There is another question for the Minister of State to address in the document. Has any progress been made in progressing major flood defence systems throughout the country? I have in mind the repair of flood defences in Cork, Galway, Waterford and the Shannon region which were damaged during the last storms in 2014. Again, the Minister of State can clarify the matter, but I understand that the relevant budget has been underspent this year by some €14.5 million. At least, that is what those involved tell me. I imagine the Minister of State will be able to answer those questions adequately.
We must not forget the upper Shannon. All of the discussions until now have been about what has happened on the lower Shannon from Athlone into the two lakes, Lough Ree and Lough Derg, and down into Limerick. However, there has been serious flooding in my capital town of Carrick-on-Shannon, as well as Leitrim Village, some four miles from Drumshanbo. Much of this was outlined in the letter sent to the Minister of State on 18 January. A number of proposals were put forward, but I will single out one or two in particular. The ESB has been given responsibility for the maintenance of Lough Allen. The ESB maintains the level at 48.15 m between 1 October and 1 April. Normally the level is 48.15 m, but the proposal is that Lough Allen would be closed for navigation purposes between 1 October and 1 April. This would allow for any flooding to be absorbed by the lough. From October through to December - it happened again in January - the level in Lough Allen increased by 6 ft. It went from 48.15 m to 51.5 m or 51.8 m. As a direct result of the water being allowed to go over the sluice gates - the sluice gates were shut - Leitrim Village and Carrick-on-Shannon, in particular, were severely affected. Mr. Dunne has pointed out in the letter that the town of Carrick-on-Shannon has lost approximately €1.5 million in business. That is a vast amount of money by any standards, but particularly for a county such as Leitrim with a relatively low population - Carrick-on-Shannon is the least populated county town in the country. The Minister of State will understand the devastation that it has created, especially for small businesses.
I would be grateful if the Minister of State got his officials to deal with this letter as a matter of urgency. The chamber has put forward seven points covering what can be done to alleviate flooding in future in the Carrick-on-Shannon and Roosky areas.
There is a very specific proposal which the chamber made to the ESB. Given that the ESB as responsibility for it, I am not sure whether the Minister of State and the OPW are able to direct the company or whether they are in negotiations with it. One of the ways the Minister of State could help alleviate flooding in future - I understand, from a meeting held with it earlier today, that the ESB is not against the proposal - would be to provide what is called "sheet piling" along the route from the sluice gate at Ballintra in Drumshanbo, which has been in place since the beginning of the hydroelectric scheme of 1926. The gate was provided to regulate the flow of water out of Lough Allen, which was originally to be used as a reservoir for the generation of electricity at Ardnacrusha. As a result of the development in tourism over the last 20 years, local lobbying resulted in the reopening of the Lough Allen canal which, as the Minister of State will know, links up with the Shannon-Erne waterway at Leitrim village. What was done opened up the entire north Shannon area for boating. I understand that some 150 boats go through the locks into Lough Allen between April and October each year. From October onward, there is very little boat traffic on the canal. It would go a long way towards alleviating any future flooding problems if Lough Allen were closed to navigation between October and April and if the levels were allowed to rise. In fact, the levels would probably be lowered as a result. Specifically, if sheet piling were placed between the lock at Ballintra and the Galley Bridge, a stretch of water that runs for a mile to a mile and a half after the Shannon leaves Lough Allen, it would go a long way towards alleviating the flooding further down in Leitrim village and Carrick-on-Shannon.
At present, the ESB is saying it wants to maintain the levels at 48.5 m because it is afraid the embankments will burst if too much water is allowed out of Lough Allen into the Shannon at that point. John Dunne and Deputy Fitzmaurice have highlighted the fact that if the ESB puts in the interlocking sheet piling system it has put in place in other parts of the country, this would alleviate, to a considerable degree, any threat of the embankments bursting because permanent structures would be in place. It is not a very long stretch but it is a significant one. If one thinks about it, 6 ft of water has gone over the sluice gates between October and December. At one point, that water had nowhere else to go but down into Leitrim village and Carrick-on-Shannon. There is no doubt that along with the other proposals in the letter, into which I will not go now as they are very technical, this is a manageable, low-cost approach. It includes, for example, clearance of trees from channels in the vicinity of Jamestown Weir. Jamestown is the next village after Carrick-on-Shannon. The letter also suggests the use of the Albert Canal for flood conveyance by bypassing the restrictions at Jamestown Weir and Charlestown. This would require the installation of simple penstocks at the lock gates, which would only be used once the 12 sluices at Jamestown Weir were open. That means it would be used to truncate peak flows only and would not increase the likelihood of siltation in the canal. That is just one example of the detail into which the group has gone. It also talks about widening the channel at the Leitrim bank opposite Charlestown by 10 m and suggests this would be carried out above summer water levels. As a result, it would not impact on normal levels or spawning areas and could minimise the risk of siltation.
I compliment Deputy Fitzmaurice, my colleague, Deputy Cowen, and others who attended a widely publicised meeting with the European Commission. It addressed this perception that habitat directives are more important than people and that fish, endangered species and insects are of more concern. That has been knocked on the head now. That was the word that came back. There is a flexibility within the habitats directive and I would be grateful if the Minister of State would address that issue. Certainly, that was the message that came back from the meeting. The flexibility is there to allow drainage in particular areas. I am thinking in particular of the initiative at Kinvara to open a channel to the Atlantic which would allow the water to flow out. I have attended the ESB briefings and I recall talking to its representatives about this entire problem. It reminded me of an old cliché my late father used. When I was a child he used to say that he met a woman who used to say "Let us kneel down and say a decade of the rosary for de Valera and the draining of the Shannon". That saying dates back to the foundation of the State. It is not a simple matter of drainage as the Minister of State knows. However, there is a problem with the Shannon. It is like a saucer. If the water pours in, it has nowhere to go and the surrounding area floods. There are ancillary works which, as the Minister of State knows well, can be carried out.
My final plea to the Minister of State is the most important. Mr. John Dunne made sure that I would say this to the Minister of State and I agree that I should. The Minister of State has visited every town and locale throughout the country except Carrick-on-Shannon. At the time of the flooding, he was not in Carrick-on-Shannon. In fact, there was no representative there.
While Tip O'Neill said that all politics was local, I am not suggesting that the Minister of State deliberately neglected or ignored the town. He has been to places all over the country. We are asking him, however, to take the time to meet the local flood committee and the chamber of commerce in Carrick-on-Shannon in light of the proposals they have put forward to him and in order that he might be able to implement some or all of them. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his input. I acknowledge that he has been out there doing the best he could in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. I ask him to please come and visit lovely Leitrim at his earliest convenience.
I welcome the Minister of State. I express my appreciation of the energy he has brought to dealing with problem by visiting as many places as possible. There were unnatural expectations that Ministers could act the part of King Canute by appearing wherever there were floods to wave them back. However, the problem has much deeper roots. There is a case detailed in the Irish Examinertoday of a supermarket in Cork where the claimants for the planning permission had contradictory advice as to whether the area where it is to be built is located on a flood plain. This happens all the time. Regarding turloughs in south Galway, it has been known for many decades that water goes underground and one does not know where it is going to rise again. That must be something people note when they plan their buildings.
We have to examine the question of hydroelectric power. There were statements that the Shannon meets only 2% of our electricity needs at this stage. If there are environmental consequences of the kind we have seen, should it be switched off during the winter? Is it a piece of industrial archaeology? What do current energy prices tell us about the viability of hydroelectricity? If we add in the social costs we have seen, it might change the balance. There are other ways to generate electricity which do not involve the flooding of people's houses. There was an irony when the Minister of State was addressing how we would cope with these problems. When there were ESB announcements of how much water it intended to release downstream, RTE was then going straight to people downstream who said they might get by that night. There has to be some co-ordination there. The legal case is the one between UCC and the ESB where the ESB was judged to be 70% responsible for the flooding in Cork city in 2009. What is the future of hydro? Should the reservoirs be emptied to cater for the winter floods rather than to wait for the crisis where a dam might burst and water has to be let through following which a phone call is made to people who are downstream to see how they cope?
The leading economic research on this matter, which has stood the test of time, was carried out by the US Army Corps of Engineers, at the invitation of the Government of the day, following the flooding caused by the Shannon in the 1950s. I think the project was led by a Lt. Colonel Rydell. He said the case then was to move people's residences to higher ground. At that stage in the 1950s, not much happened in agriculture in the winter in any event and there was no great economic loss. While the pattern of agriculture may have changed, the report is still authoritative.
Like the Minister of State and the Taoiseach, I am disappointed at the response of the insurance industry. As the Minister of State said, we have put money into Kilkenny, Fermoy and Clonmel. Is the insurance industry seriously saying that there was no statistical reduction in the probability of flooding? Insurance is about risk. We had discussions with the Minister of State's ministerial colleague on safety on the roads yesterday. The insurance industry must bring itself up to date in the context of the assessment of risk.It has not been particularly good at doing that. It discounted the portable defences against flooding, even though the Minister of State has shown they have been extremely effective where they have been tried. The UK evidence is that they are better than sandbags because the latter leak and these portable defences against flooding do not. Let us have the insurance industry carry out proper actuarial work and reward the OPW, other agencies and, indeed, the taxpayer, who has put a great deal of investment into flood prevention programmes which, apparently, are not resulting in any reduction in people's insurance liabilities in the case of flooding. In some cases, they are not preventing companies from refusing to insure properties. It seems strange in view of recent events but there are places where the investment programmes relating to flood defences are highly unpopular. I am thinking of the Clontarf and the James Larkin causeway in this regard. It appears a level of construction was taking place to prevent floods that are impossible to predict. Perhaps more resources should be allocated where they are needed.
A final point that arose in our recent debates on climate change relates to the advisory committee. The committee's chairman, Professor John Fitzgerald, said earlier today that it will be independent. However, the criticism in this House was that the climate change advisory committee is overloaded with economists and short on experts who have studied climate change. It also needs to be independent of the Environmental Protection Agency. We want independent advice. One of the issues that arose during the banking inquiry was that when the Department of Finance did not like the advice from the ESRI, it's officials phoned the latter to complain. We do not want that. We want all views, including contrarian ones, to be brought to bear on this problem.
I compliment the Minister of State on placing on record the two schemes that are up and running, with €344,000 made available to the 360 households and €530,000 for small business. In the period of despair people experienced, they did not think that money was going to arrive and they felt almost alone in coping with the problem. I am glad those numbers are now on the record and that those facilities are still open to compensate people. It is an area in which we will have to do a great deal of planning regarding where we build and how we protect against floods. Even though it was, as the Minister of State said, an exceptional December in terms of rain, lessons have been learned. The legal judgment in the ESB v.UCC case, which was the biggest case of flooding, will be extremely important to explore. I gather it runs to over 300 pages. The university was judged to be 30% responsible and the ESB 70% responsible for that flood. If we do not do work like that, the moral hazard problem will assert itself. We will have these emergencies and everyone will want to know why the Minister is not there. We have to take measures to anticipate flooding and deal with it and to apportion the blame appropriately when that is necessary.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his excellent work in recent weeks. I have been in regular contact with him regarding flooding and I commend him on the Trojan work he is doing. I also welcome the opportunity to debate this issue today in the Seanad.
Where certain well-known areas of the country were subject to occasional flooding in the past, it now seems that there are larger areas that are not immune. There are two issues here, which the Minister of State has highlighted, namely, global warming and planning. Global warming is a fact; we can now see its effects. We have seen commentary from experts in recent weeks on what it holds in store and areas that were previously unaffected by flooding may now be prone to it. Experts warn that Ireland and the UK will be the most affected in Europe by river flooding and it is important that we make the necessary preparations. In that light, I welcome the €430 million committed by Government over the next five years for flood alleviation measures. That is more than was spent in the past 20 years, for the better part of which Fianna Fáil was in government. It is important to note the work of this Government. I also welcome planning guidelines that will make it more difficult to build in areas prone to flooding. I commend the Minister on the Environment, Community and Local Government for his consideration of a blanket ban on building on flood plains. I also commend the Minister of State on the flood-mapping exercise and consultation his Department is carrying out. When complete, this will enable the Department to devise a plan for much-needed flood defences right across the country.
The area in which I live, Claregalway, was particularly affected by flooding caused by the River Clare and by local turloughs. It is now just past the anniversary of the flooding that occurred in 2009 and that decimated parts of the area. I pay tribute to all the council workers, volunteers, and people from the Civil Defence who came out and gave of their time and energy, day and night, to help people in the local community. I visited families in Claregalway during the recent flooding and their properties were nearly under water again. The Minister of State has been excellent in following up on the planned flood relief works on the Clare river. The latest information is that it will commence in the first quarter of this year. However, the residents are seeking a date when people will be on site carrying out the final phase of these works, which are sorely needed.
I also want to raise the issue of the lack of insurance cover, which has also been raised by my colleagues this afternoon. I will again use Claregalway as an example. Parts of that area were flooded in 2009 and the properties there have been uninsurable since. While it is vital that the Clare river flood works commence as soon as possible, it is also vital that when they are complete, these people will get insurance. Many of the houses I visited were bought during the so-called boom. They are very expensive, the mortgages on them are enormous and many properties are, to all intents and purposes, worthless. I welcome the meeting the Taoiseach and the Minister of State held with the insurance industry. It was a very worthwhile exercise. One cannot expect an insurer to insure a house that is prone to flooding. Insurance is an estimation of risk and some of these homes are always at risk and uninsurable. We should, however, expect the insurance industry to insure houses that have been subject to proper flood alleviation works. I distinctly remember having a similar discussion two years ago. I know the Minister of State understands that there is little point in works being carried out if the insurance industry is not happy with these works. Conversely, the insurance industry cannot dictate unreasonable or unreachable standards.
There are too many Departments involved in and regulations relating to flood management at various levels. For example, the recent EU directive stipulates that any flood relief work permitted by the Office of Public Works must be reviewed by another Department. In Ireland's case, that Department is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This has slowed down the process of approval for the Clare river works, for example. The Minister of State has assured me that these works will proceed with due haste. I was interested to hear in recent weeks that the Commission said it is not in any way responsible for any delay in approving flood alleviation works. In respect of any work that might impact on the natural environment, which is nearly everything, a plethora of EU directives must be considered or obeyed. That is a simple fact. EU regulations slowed down approval for the Clare river project. That is just one example of the delays we have been experiencing.
I commend the Minister of State on his great work to date and look forward to the roll-out of these major flood alleviation projects.
The Minister of State is very welcome. I also commend him on his prompt response on the ground. On 27 December, two days after Christmas, I had to text him about a very urgent situation in Labane in Galway, just south of my home, where a woman feared for her life as the floods were rising. She also had depression, which made the situation worse. My purpose in standing here today is to talk to the Minister of State about what works well. He knows there is a serious problem across the country. Half of Ireland has been under water. With climate change now a reality - and one that is not going to go away - we must look afresh at our country. I am delighted the Minister of State is present for this debate. One lesson we must learn is that anyone whose property was flooded in 2009 and again in 2015 was, let us face it, let down by the State. Any works that rely on the election cycle will fail the people. The State must assume responsibility for the work that needs to be done, regardless of the Government that is in power.In 2009 we had a Fianna Fáil-led Government and in 2015 we have a Fine Gael-led Government and, between the two, people fell.
We have some good news stories. I can talk about homes in Moneymore and Oranmore in my own parish that were flooded and in terrible shape in 2009. They did not re-flood because the works were done by the OPW and here is how it happened. I called a public meeting of all the farmers and homeowners in that area, which was also attended by the OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the county council. The OPW agreed to lead. The National Parks and Wildlife Service could see the misery these people were in but the local river needed to be dredged and the National Parks and Wildlife Service obliged in this respect. One wonderful farmer, Mr. John Brennan, led the farmers and worked with the OPW. Over a series of years those drainage works were done and the water was taken to the sea. It worked and those people are deeply grateful. There were some successful works in Claregalway but others were not successful and some works were not finished. I am delighted to hear that the final phase is under way but it was a miss.
I am very concerned about the humanitarian fund and that it might be means tested. This happened after 2009, when people failed to get the support they needed. There was one loss of life - through suicide - as a result of the very slow relocation process and this is well known locally. It really saddened me that, although every public representative in Galway represented that family for three years, as soon as the loss of life happened the family got the home.
The good news, which I put on the record last week, is that re-planting native trees in upland areas and incentivising farmers to be flood protectors are working in other countries. In Wales there is a project called the Pontbren project, led by Bangor University and farmers. By planting only 5% of their uplands and hilly areas with broadleaf native species of tree they have improved the situation as regards flooding by 29%. We need to look very seriously at doing that here. The woodland league has brought the information to me that native trees, with their deep roots, can absorb water 67 times faster than grasslands. South Galway is ruined. I am the chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee society and the water is now up to the thatch in Coole Park. I brought in pictures of when we brought in Sir Bob Geldof recently to help us. He is fronting a documentary on Yeats but the only way we could show Yeats's home to him was in a boat. Coole Park, the former home of Lady Gregory, is absolutely ruined and the water is up on the autograph tree where all the famous poets and literary figures to whom she was a patron have signed their names. If Derrybrien and Slieve Aughty were replanted with native trees they would soak the water before it flowed downhill. Even saplings of only two years old act as natural flooding absorbers.
We need to incentivise our farmers to be flood protectors because the farmers own the land and there is a lot of goodwill out there to improve this. I listened to Senators Landy and Mooney and they all have mountains and hilly areas in their environs so let us plant these trees. We must get Coillte on side; the Minister has a problem in this regard. Coillte owns 1.2 acres of our forest areas but they are planting conifers for the timber crop. They do not have deep roots and are not a native species. The Minister has to mix it.
A report of COFORD and UCD states that we want 30% broadleaf criteria so the Minister should be planting native varieties such as oak, mountain ash and willow by afforestation and new planting on virgin ground and reforestation after clear felling or harvesting a tree crop. There are other native varieties so I ask the Minister to seriously look at these criteria. Coillte is a semi-State agency. It owes the State as well as its shareholders. Climate change is upon us and is not going away so the State needs to look at sustainable solutions. We know drainage works by bringing the water to the sea and that flood defences help but now we must work with our environment. The Minister of State is the best man to place this information before because he has a bit of vision. He is a worker and he is not afraid to take the lead. How can we ignore the importance of this evidence? It is also working in Norway and they have 50% less flooding because they are heeding the evidence for planting trees with deep roots in upland areas. They are our native species and we were traditionally a woodland people.
I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, is in the House today to discuss this important issue. Flooding may have abated for the moment but it certainly has not gone away and it will be back. A hard rain has fallen and it will keep coming back until we deal with it with some purpose, some vision and serious sustainable and long-term strategies. Present company excluded, I am surprised we have not been drowned and flooded for a second time with the amount of crocodile tears that have flowed in the past six weeks from people talking out of both sides of their mouths and being dishonest by telling people there can be quick-fix solutions and it can all be sorted with flood defences, dredging and drainage. In some instances the drainage works of the past have caused flooding on neighbours' land and adjacent properties in towns and villages. The flood defences worked in Carrick-on-Suir, as Senator Denis Landy outlined, and in other towns such as Clonmel and Fermoy but they also certainly caused flooding further downstream. We see on an ongoing basis with the Shannon that we solve a problem in one spot by opening up the sluice, the weir or the dam but we flood Cork or Athlone or towns further down. We have to stop being selfish and pretending that this will do and that this is the answer. There are people playing to the gallery on this and who just want to make an electoral and political football out of it but we cannot deal with it in this way. There have been very good ideas today and Senators Fidelma Healy Eames, Denis Landy and others have come forward with some good suggestions. I am glad the Minister of State is here as he is a listening Minister and someone who will take these suggestions up and try to implement some of them. However, we must have a holistic approach.
In some instances I do not agree with the Minister that it is just a natural phenomenon and a matter of climate change. Some of it is man-made and we are causing some of the flooding ourselves. In some cases it is State agencies which are responsible. The ESB has a role and the OPW and Coillte have roles. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has a role but it seems to me that, in some instances, they do not all sing from the same hymnsheet and they certainly do not co-operate with, assist and support each other. In some cases, some of their objectives and purposes are at odds and we must address this. This was clearly shown at the height of the flooding when Bord na Móna was draining bogs and pumping water into an already flooded Shannon basin.
What is the sense in that? I propose that Bord na Móna take the water from the Shannon and flood the cut-away midlands bogs as wetlands, as habitats and as reserves, as a safety valve for flooding when it occurs. Can the Minister address the issue of Garryhinch reservoir, which we have pursued here for the past number of years? Garryhinch reservoir is a feasible and live proposal. It is a valid and sustainable proposal but Irish Water has rubbished it because it does not suit it. They want to build a pipeline from the Shannon direct to Dublin.That is short-sighted and it is stupid in the extreme. We need a reservoir to have redundant capacity, to address situations such as flooding and to have an overflow capacity. What if, as has already proven to be the case, there was contamination at source during periods of flooding? With floods, often there is contamination as a result of the presence of debris and sewerage. What then would be the position with the pipeline if the safety valve of a reservoir were not put in place?
On the other hand, in light of the weather extremes we are experiencing, droughts will occur. We must build in capacity so that we have redundant capacity for farming, families, factories and foreign direct investment. I am glad The Irish Timeshas supported my campaign in this regard. It reported that it is a fallacy to consider building an €800 million water pipeline from the Shannon without including the reservoir. I ask the Minister of State to address that and to assure the public that it is a live prospect, is still under consideration and is a matter that will be addressed by the next Government, not by Irish Water.
We must also be honest. When this project was first mooted, some of those who are now crying crocodile tears about the Shannon basin being flooded informed me that we would not get a drop of their water. Where is the sense in that? Can they not look beyond the end of their noses, their political catchment areas and their electoral constituencies in order to see what is best for the common good? We must take a holistic approach. I do not agree with the Taoiseach and the Government that there should not be a single Shannon authority. We must at least have everyone working to common purpose. We must have a catchment approach, from source to sea. I urge the Minister of State to actively pursue the reinstatement of agencies such as the Barrow Drainage Board. We need to re-establish such entities because in the past they facilitated co-operation among the local authorities along the expanse of the river, from Laois down to Waterford, in Carlow, Kildare, Offaly and everywhere in between. As a result of such co-operation, the issues of bank maintenance and dredging used to be addressed. Outdoor staff from the local authorities maintained the culverts and drains and ensured that shores remained unblocked. We have stopped all that kind of work in a rush to lay off local authority staff and move towards privatisation. Who now has responsibility to keep shores, culverts and tributaries clear? Flooding is often caused by man-made impediments, such as bridges and weirs not being maintained and culverts and shores not being kept open and cleaned. We all have a responsibility in this regard. We have got to stop pretending. One's heart goes out to the families which had to endure this all through Christmas and into the new year. How stressful it must have been. Only for the intervention of volunteers and great organisations, such as the fire service and the Civil Defence, people would certainly have been far worse off. That said, there is scope for improved co-operation between the local authorities. Some parts of the country were not affected at all or not as badly affected. I believe they could have deployed fire tenders, Civil Defence personnel and pumps to the areas worse affected. We must have a little more joined-up thinking.
This problem is here to stay unless we adopt a sustainable, long-term strategic response. Dredging, the erection of defences and drainage alone will not do. Climate change is here. We have proof of it. It is not all down to nature. Man has played a role in this and we can at least interfere positively. However, there is no point in Bord na Móna doing one thing, the ESB doing the opposite and Irish Water stating it has nothing to do with it.
I welcome the Minister of State. Senator Whelan has basically covered everything in a nutshell. I have visited areas in Ballinasloe, Athlone, Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle that were flooded - these areas are always prone to flooding - and I am aware that there is no one solution in terms of solving this problem. I know one woman who has been a captive in her home for five or six weeks as a result of flooding. She has not been able to use her toilet for six weeks. She cannot use the dishwasher, the washing machine or anything else. The house is surrounded by sandbags and she is constantly having family members in to try to keep the seeping water away from her front door.
I raised this issue before the Seanad broke for the Christmas recess. I stated that Athlone is a town prone to flooding and that it would be flooded. I highlighted the fact that there is a company based in Athlone called Global Flood Solutions but nobody from Government made contact with the proprietor to see what could he do to solve the problem around the town. He is selling his product all over the world and yet the Government, which was reactive rather than proactive, would not do business with him. There are other companies in County Galway that provide similar products that were in touch with me and nobody has been in contact with them. Last year, when Foynes in Limerick was under threat of flooding, the OPW went to Global Flood Solutions and invested in its product. That product worked and saved Foynes from flooding. We need to involve companies that have expertise and ensure that they are part of the solution.
Senator Barrett mentioned insurance, a matter to which I will also refer. Those whose properties were flooded will not get insurance unless the Government intervenes. I am aware of one business - a pub - in my locality that was flooded and to which €2,500 worth of damage was done. It is not a great deal but it is still €2,500. The insurance policy covers the business for fire, flooding and public liability but if the owners make a claim for flooding, they will never get insurance again. They are in an awful predicament. What should they do?
Finally, Senator Whelan mentioned the fire service - our emergency service. I have great faith in the fire service but, unfortunately, during the flooding crisis throughout the country, some local authorities were refusing to let the fire service - which has expertise when it comes to flooding - out because of the cost involved. It is important that the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, should make a ministerial intervention on this matter and inform local authorities that the fire service should be deployed in all cases of emergency, including flooding.
I welcome the Minister of State. Everybody was caught unprepared by the extent of the extreme weather over Christmas. The Minister of State was out doing his best to address it. Understandably, there is a great deal of anger throughout the country, particularly in areas that had previously been flooded. I refer, for example, to Athlone, which was also badly flooded in 2009.
What is important at this stage is that we focus on the future. We cannot control the weather. Unfortunately, the reality of life is that, with climate change, extreme weather events will become more frequent. As the flood waters have receded, it is important that we maintain our resolve. There has been a focus on this issue for the past two months because of the flooding that has taken place throughout the country. There was just as big a focus on it in 2009 and on other occasions when major flooding events occurred but sometimes the problem is that the agenda moves on and the media and the politicians switch their focus to other issues. It is essential that does not happen in this instances because we are going to experience further extreme weather events in the coming years. It is essential to put the investment and preparation in place now in order to ensure that we can help people cope. We cannot control the weather but we can certainly prepare and help people to protect their homes and businesses more effectively in the future.
Suggestions have been made across the House on various different ways in which this can be done. The issue of insurance has been mentioned. There should be universal insurance cover for flooding. It is no different to community rating for health insurance purposes. I have heard some of the insurance companies state that, in the case of flooding, that they do not want to cover those at risk, they do not cover certainties and they only cover events that are unlikely or less likely to happen. That is not the case in the health insurance market. An insurer cannot state it is refusing health insurance because of one's medical history. Even if somebody has serious medical issues or a genetically inherited illness runs in his or her family, as a society we believe that everybody should be entitled to health insurance. That means the rest of us, those who are healthy, pay more but we believe that this is a societal value worth upholding and that nobody should be left on their own when bad health hits.The same should apply in situations like this. Of course, we need to ensure more effective planning in order that we do not build on flood plains. Some of the decisions made in the past were absolutely disgraceful. They are not the fault of the unfortunate people living in houses now that should never have been built and perhaps there is a need to consider relocation, but we cannot to say to them that they are on their own. There is a need to step up to find a solution. The Government should force the insurance companies to cover everybody. The UK has a levy for this purpose and we should fight for that principle here. I urge the Minister of State to prioritise that.
Improved flood protection measures are required throughout the country. Major schemes should be undertaken to protect areas under threat such as Athlone. Individuals property owners should be helped. I have corresponded with the Minister of State's Department and the Office of Public Works over the past two years about householders in Sutton, Baldoyle and elsewhere. There are only two or three houses on the coast road from Baldoyle to Portmarnock. Fingal County Council and the OPW accept that they are at risk of flooding and they have been flooded several times, but the householders have been told there is no justification for a major flood protection scheme because there are only two or three houses on the road. As they have pointed out to me, if they want to insulate their homes, they can get a grant for that purpose but they cannot for flood protection. A mix of large flood protection schemes where they are justified in densely populated areas, towns and villages and smaller schemes for vulnerable homes, which are highlighted on OPW maps, is needed. Let us at least have a scheme that enables householders to do their best to protect their own homes. I have pushed this issue for the past two years and I hope the resolve is there to address it.
Most of the attention currently is on fluvial flooding but protections against tidal flooding are also necessary. It must be ensured investment is put in place. There are great plans in the Department for flood protection measures throughout the county and it is essential the funding they require is provided. Major flood protection schemes should be undertaken in a way that both provides the necessary protection against flooding but also preserves existing amenities. In this context, I refer to Clontarf. Everybody wants proper flood relief measures to protect homes and businesses, but the initial proposals that were brought forward, as Dublin City Council has admitted, took no account of the overall environment. It was proposed to build a large wall that would block off the sea. The promenade is full every day, from first thing in the morning to late at night with people jogging, walking and cycling, and it would not have been used because it would have been cut off from the road. Women, in particular, said they would not walk where they could not be seen. The schemes, therefore, need to be environmentally sensitive as well. They should provide the necessary protection while also preserving amenities. There is another issue on a different stretch of that road between Clontarf and Raheny where there is significant community concern about the way flood protection measures have been undertaken. A crude, cheap concrete wall was erected which has blocked beautiful views of the sea that passers-by could enjoy. There is no longer any view and people are upset about that. There is no history of tidal flooding in the area. I conducted a site visit with the engineers involved last week and they admitted that the risk is from river flooding caused by water emerging from St. Anne's Park. The new scheme cannot deal with that and they said that people will have to live with that, yet a huge wall has been erected to protect against a low tidal risk. There is a tidal flooding risk elsewhere, but that particular stretch of coastline is protected by Dollymount and Bull Island and there is little wave action because of silting and so on. The height of the wall is not necessary. Officials need to be smart about these issues and not come up with a crude, one-size-fits-all approach. They should work with communities to arrive at solutions that will work.
I urge the Minister of State to take those issues on board. He has taken control of them over the past two months and I urge him to continue to work on them as the waters recede and maintain them as a priority in order that those who have been flooded for a second or third time recently do not have to go through that experience again.
I welcome the Minister of State and join colleagues in complimenting him on the hands-on approach he has taken from the word go. He interacted well with communities to give them reassurance. It is appropriate that we have this discussion in order that the members of the public who were badly impacted during Christmas and whose lives were made miserable by the awful floods can see the Government is taking this issue seriously. This is the first Government in the history of the State to tackle the issue head on and to deal with it in a proactive way. It will invest money such as the €450 million that has been allocated over the next number of years for a variety of solutions. It is evident from previous contributions that one size does not fit all and there is no easy solution to all the problems, but joined-up thinking is needed with communities and experts working together to reduce the impact of flooding, because global warming is here to stay and we will have to deal with flooding on an ongoing basis.
County Galway was seriously impacted because of a diverse range of issues. Senator Barrett alluded to the turloughs in south Galway and Deputies from the area have been in touch with the Minister of State with a variety of solutions and suggestions. Funding will be made available for the Dunkellin river project, which is welcome, and I hope An Bord Pleanála will approve it by the end of February. I have been hearing about that project since I was a small boy and that was not today or yesterday. I hope there will be action on that in the coming year.
The Minister of State was correct to pay tribute to all the people who helped during the recent crisis, including the staff of local authorities, the Civil Defence, other organisations and, in particular, local volunteers who demonstrated their concern for their fellow citizens and helped to make their lives a little more bearable.
South-east Galway, Athlone and County Roscommon were heavily impacted by the flooding caused by the River Shannon. I will not go into this because it has been referred to but I welcome the establishment of the River Shannon co-ordination group by the Taoiseach. I am not concerned about who heads it up or whether the OPW is the lead agency as long as all the groups that have a direct involvement and interest in the river are on board to work in the public interest and to ensure the work that needs to be done and the decisions that need to be made are made in the public interest to ensure the livelihoods and homes of people in this area. As well as drawing on the technical expertise of the various groups, I urge them to draw on local knowledge and experience. There is nobody better than those on the ground who have experienced flooding through the decades to provide valuable information.
I thank the Minister of State for visiting Ballinasloe on 23 December 2015 and for meeting the people who were impacted. The visit was much appreciated, as was the announcement for funding for work on the Deer Park river. The county council applied for funding and he immediately approved that. That will have an impact. Ballinasloe is an interesting case. The flooding in 2009 impacted approximately 160 homes and businesses. The floods on this occasion were worse but the number of premises impacted reduced to approximately 20 because of the investment made in 2012 to build a defence wall, which protects the homes in Derrymullen. It saved 120 houses from being impacted this time. Work done on the East Bridge also helped. That was a positive investment by the State but more needs to be done.Michael Tully of the Ballinasloe Flood Alleviation Group made a fine presentation during the Minister of State's visit. I had them here in Leinster House to meet the Minister of State some months previously. Their proposals and suggestions very much mirror the proposals and solutions being put forward under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, project. Last Monday week, approximately 100 local people attended a meeting in Ballinasloe and proposed a number of solutions.
Yes. I need to flesh this out a bit more. I will bring a number of matters to the Minister of State's attention on their behalf. The CFRAM proposals are closely aligned to what the Ballinasloe Flood Alleviation Group has put forward regarding the Station Road bund. The group proposes that it could be put in place for a cost of €480,000, and seeks funding under the small schemes project. It has a favourable cost-benefit analysis of 1.85. The work could be done immediately.
Two additional flood eyes on the east bridge need to be opened. However, there is a difficulty with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in that it is a protected structure. I ask that the Minister of State liaise with the Department to resolve the impasse.
On flood insurance, the group did a survey recently-----
That is no problem at all. I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of flooding with the Minister of State, who has been to Galway and knows that south Galway was particularly badly affected. We badly need a resolution. Any proposal for flood relief measures in south Galway should be sensible and realistic and should provide a real assurance to local families, businesses, farmers and all the people who have lost their livelihoods that they will be protected from the onslaught of further flooding into the future. I have already raised the issue in the Seanad. The human rights of flood victims should come ahead of any environmental considerations.
While I have no interest in interfering in the planning process, more can and should be done to ensure peace of mind for victims across Galway and other flooded regions across the country. I propose, in the first instance, that time limits be introduced for An Bord Pleanála decisions regarding flood relief measures. The Minister of State has heard much about the Dunkellin river. Understandably, there is much anger and frustration on the part of people living along the river and the Aggard stream due to the delay in decision making. The river was last dredged during the English occupation. My father said the last time he was aware that it was cleaned, they parked their vans in his father's garage in Athenry. It was some time ago. The fact that people are still awaiting a decision on whether the scheme can go ahead is ludicrous. To lose their homes and possessions on a regular basis is a terrible experience that nobody should have to endure. We should take all possible measures to alleviate the stress heaped upon the families and victims of such significant destruction as a result of flooding. Time limits for decisions of An Bord Pleanála would be a step in the right direction.
A local authority housing estate in my home town in Athenry, Caheroyan, was flooded as a result of the rainfall in December. It caused major stress to families. A cessation of rental payments for these people would be adequate to enable them to make any repairs they need to do in their gardens and compensate them for the turf they have lost from their sheds and all the damage that has been done. It would be a welcome goodwill gesture on the Minister of State's part if he could liaise with his Cabinet colleagues to see that it happens.
I raise the possibility of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, contributing to compensation for the area most affected. I am particularly thinking of Labane, Cahermore, Ballinstague and all the way to Kinvara. A very eminent academic was quoted in The Irish Timesthis week as saying that TII had picked the least suitable route for the M18. It is plausible to assume that TII exacerbated the floods in Labane, Ardrahan and Ballinstague, given the interference with the geology of the area and the fact that there has possibly been some re-engineering of the drainage in the area in order to allow the motorway to go ahead. Somebody mentioned to me that they were going through a succession of turloughs in the area.
I just need 30 seconds. They interfered with a number of turloughs in the area. Given that I would not build a house on a turlough, I do not expect the State to build motorways in turloughs without having any adverse effects on the local community. We are seeing this now.
We need to examine European directives. I propose that the State go to Europe and seek a relaxation of laws on special areas of conservation where there have been identifiable human catastrophes such as those that took place in south Galway and around the country.
I only need 30 seconds. The people affected by flooding in south Galway need workable solutions. The time for talking is over. I would welcome any action that can be taken regarding my proposals. I commend the Minister of State on all he has done so far and the empathy he has shown to the families. They need workable solutions going into the future. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State considered my suggestions.
I will not repeat all that has been said. Some very good points have been made. The Minister of State has been actively engaged in a situation in Clonahinchy in County Clare, and I fear that as a result of the trauma many of our colleagues around the country have suffered, the problems in Clonahinchy will be a lower priority. The Minister of State very kindly visited the area, which is near Quilty in County Clare. He also met a delegation from Clonahinchy and kindly supported a feasibility study to identify a resolution to the issues that affect the residents. I want the Minister of State to give a commitment here that he will not forget about it and that dealing with the problems in this area will not be put on the long finger. Perhaps the Minister of State might indicate a timeframe in which he will study the recommendations of the feasibility study that was delivered to him in November.
I will be as quick as I can. I thank Senators from all sides of the House for what has been largely a constructive and informative debate. I will try to deal with as many of the issues as possible.
Senator White and others raised the issue of climate change, and I fully agree with her. We cannot ignore it and pretend it is not happening. That is why I am very proud that our national flood plan, CFRAM, goes beyond the EU floods directive, which requires us to put in place a national flood plan, and factors climate change forecasts into the model, which will, one hopes, future-proof the country. It is a prudent and important measure. I am glad to hear of the improvements carried out by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and I hope it is of comfort to Senator White's community.
Senator Keane strongly emphasised the point about climate change. I am proud that we have the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, which I see as more of a first step than a destination. My office has established a climate change adaptation plan, and there is an onus on all of us in public bodies to implement it as quickly as possible. Senator Keane referenced the Dutch. We are engaging with Dutch experts who have been here on an ongoing basis, examining what we are doing. We are learning from them and, I am proud to say, in some areas they are learning from us. There is a good engagement.
A number of Senators raised the issue of insurance. The insurance industry needs to realise that demountable flood barriers, which can be put up and taken down, are not substandard short cuts that are used just because they are cheaper. They work. In some areas, they are the only type of defence that will work.In Fermoy, for example, there is a demountable which, if it was left in place the whole time, would divide the town in two. One cannot build a wall across a main road or bridge and shut down the town. The demountable barrier worked in Fermoy and they work in other countries. However, in other countries insurance companies provide cover where demountables are used. One Senator made the suggestion that people working in the insurance industry need to familiarise themselves with demountables. Certainly, anything that we can do in the OPW to help that happen we are pleased to do. At our meeting last week, the insurance companies undertook to review their position on demountables and they are due to report back at the end of this week. In addition, the Department of Finance is examining best international practice.
I take the point that Senator Power made about the UK system. That system took about six years to be introduced but it does not include business and a lot of businesses here were impacted as well. I think it is a model we should look at. We should not rule anything out because we cannot spend nearly €500 million over the next five years and have the taxpayer, effectively, paying twice. I mean they would have to pay through insurance premia and then through direct tax. Therefore, we have to get this right and I hope last week's meeting was a good start.
In terms of the Shannon group, it will have teeth and Senator Keane raised the same point. It will have an opportunity to make legislative and regulatory suggestions to Government. Its minutes will be published so people will know exactly what it is talking about. It can appear before Oireachtas committees, probably the relevant committee being the Oireachtas environment committee. It will meet on at least a quarterly basis. All of the agencies involved in the Shannon region will have to publish work plans for the next three, six and 12 months. The initiative will bring the missing piece of greater co-ordination and exchange of information, and I again emphasise that point. We have published the flood plans for the 66 areas along the Shannon. If there is a need for regulatory or legislative change, and people have referenced the ESB and the likes, then the group will have to look at such matters so it is not a talking shop. We are not ruling out a single Shannon authority but we are not going to get bogged down now, when people need immediate solutions, in trying to set up something that could end up taking a number of years to do. We should let this group get on with its work and it can do so pretty immediately.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of scheme delays. Flood relief schemes take a long time. Senator Whelan made the point that we cannot have politicians going around promising people that flood relief schemes will happen tomorrow. I was at pains not to do that because the average lead-in time for a flood relief scheme to be identified as being needed to the time it is fully delivered is about five years. The work that has been done by the CFRAM process will reduce the period by two years so the average time should be about three years. These schemes are major capital schemes. They go on people's lands. They require planning and procurement but we have to get on with them as quickly as possible. We publish an updated list of where all of our schemes are on the OPW's website so I will not go through each and everyone of them now.
I take the points made about farming. I have met the IFA on a number of occasions, as has the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have tried to show a flexibility in terms of inspections. We have tried to show support in terms of fodder. Obviously the Minister has introduced a number of measures. He is keeping a watching brief on some of the issues that Senator Reilly raised that may become apparent as the flood waters continue to recede.
I take the point that Senator Landy made about Carrick-on-Suir very seriously. Obviously he knows the area well and I agree with him that we cannot allow, as a number of Senators have said, for flooding to be forgotten as the agenda moves on. We, in the OPW, have worked on flooding for a hell of a long time and I have worked very hard on it in my time as Minister of State. It is very hard to grab headlines and get people to talk about the issue until a flood comes. I can assure the Senator that between now and the summer that the OPW will work on publishing the 300 flood plans for the entire country and all the areas affected. That will be our primary concern. I agree with him that after every storm there is a need for review which is happening now. I refer to things like making sure pumps and sandbags are available. The Senator made a point about storm water and sewage which is something that we will look at. I also take the point he made about a 71-year-old widow. There is also a role for an ombudsman who could look at cases where people are being treated unfairly. That is something I will bring up in my ongoing engagement.
I wish to assure Senator Mooney that I have not just not visited Carrick-on-Shannon. When more than half of the country is underwater one cannot visit everywhere. I have visited as many places as possible in as many disparate parts of the country as possible to get an overall feel for the issue. I am not against visiting Carrick-on-Shannon. Obviously we know the cycle one is coming into, in terms of this Government nearing the end of its mandate. I am eager to examine in detail the letter that the Senator has told me I should have received about 48 hours ago. I have just received it and I shall look at it. I know that Deputy Fitzmaurice and the man from the chamber of commerce had to go elsewhere. I thank them for being here. I am sure they will follow this matter.
Senator Paschal Mooney:By the way, the invitation was meant in the best spirit.
That is fine. It was said that we need to have a better exchange of information with the insurance companies with which I agree. That is why we have made provision for a memorandum of understanding. Where we complete a scheme we provide the information to Insurance Ireland so that it can pass that on to the companies which can be factored into the commercial decision-making process.
I do not accept that the humanitarian scheme has been inadequately funded purely because of the figures that I have put on the record. The Department of Social Protection's scheme has a budget of €10 million of which €344,000 has been drawn down. The Irish Red Cross has a budget of €5 million of which €530,000 has been drawn down. The councils have been given a clean-up budget of €18 million. The Government has made it clear that it will provide the funding that is necessary for the roads and infrastructure, as the damage becomes apparent. My office also runs a minor works scheme where local authorities, and only local authorities, can apply for up to €500,000 for relatively minor works that can make quite a substantial difference. I assure the Senator that I shall take the contents of the letter very seriously and my officials will revert to him.
We will certainly look at that matter.
In terms of the underspend, I have been at pains not to be party political during this time. Anywhere I went I invited Oireachtas Members of all political hues to attend because I believe rain and floods are not party political issues. I am somewhat frustrated, at this stage, that there has been scaremongering about budgetary matters. Let us be very clear. We are spending more on flood relief in the next years as a country - €430 million - than we did in the past 20 years and right throughout the Celtic tiger period. Every year, as people know, there is a need for multi-annual budgets. One can say one will start a flood relief scheme now but the bills might fall due next year. There has been an increase in flood relief spending this year compared with last year. I know that we are in an electoral cycle. There are loads of political issues that I look forward to debating with political parties but I ask them not to make partisan political points about flood funding, particularly when they are factually incorrect.
I will revert to the Senators on the other issues. I agree with the point made by Senator Whelan about the Garryhinch reservoir. He is right and I think it is an issue that should be considered. It will probably fall to the next Government to consider same.
Briefly, Senator Healy Eames mentioned planting which is a valid issue. We need to look at all of these suggestions. All of the constructive points that were raised I will look at. I thank the Ballinasloe group for its constructive approach. I always enjoy meeting the group because its members come with solutions. I will give serious consideration to the points raised by the Senator.
Senator Conway mentioned Clonahinchy. I confirm that I have received the feasibility report. As he will know, the OPW has been deluged with queries about work rates. We will look at the matter as quickly as we possibly can.
Senators Kelly and Power raised issues that concern Sutton and Baldoyle which I will continue to examine and I will revert to Senators on individual issues. I thank Senators for what has been a constructive debate and let us continue to work together.