Flood Chaos and the link to Climate Change

Flood Chaos and the link to Climate Change. Irish Independent, 7th November 2000

It is no Act of God that has left hundreds of homes flooded, and transport services disrupted over the last few days, it is an Act of Man. For years, environmentalists have warned of the dangers of Climate Change. Politicians and decision-makers ignored the forecasts, and the floods are a timely reminder for us to change our ways. Extreme weather events are one of the downsides of Global Warming, and we ignore the warnings at our peril. Greenhouse Gases are part of the problem, but modern farming methods, and increased urban sprawl have all contributed to the floods that Ireland and the U.K. are currently experiencing.

The increase is the Earth’s temperature over the last decade or so is part of the problem. A boiled kettle produces steam, and in the same way an over-heated planet produces higher rainfall, and floods. The solution is to reduce the amount of Greenhouse Gases that we produce. These are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and allowing the planet to over-heat. The solution may well be close at hand. Next week in the Netherlands, World Leaders will meet to tackle this problem. The Minister for the Environment, Noel Dempsey produced a Climate Change Abatement Strategy a few days ago. Sadly, it is weak on specifics, and it puts off tackling the heart of the problem. Specific measures such as home insulation grants and public transport improvements have been put on the long finger. A radical solution is now required to tackle the issue of Climate Change.

Modern farming methods have also led to an increase in flooding. Cutting down hedgerows and draining wetlands are allowing a faster run-off of heavy rain to rivers. This can create problems downstream. Bare fields can allow fifty times more rain to drain off quickly compared to grassland. Also, in earlier times large, rough furrows allowed water to gather, and drain off in a slower, safer manner. Around the world engineers are re-considering their approach to measures that control flooding. The Tennessee Valley Authority that created dams and levees throughout the mid twentieth century is now dismantling some of their massive engineering works. There is a lesson from this all politicians who call for the draining of the Shannon. Heavy-handed solutions often cause more problems than they solve. Drainage schemes in South Galway that increase winter run-off could well lead to summer water supply problems. They could also interfere with the delicate ecology of the area. This has allowed it to become a precious wildlife habitat. These days, hydro-geologists are calling for us to work with Mother Nature and recognise the danger that tinkering with the delicate balance can cause.

The spread of our towns and cities has created problems. Suburban sprawl consists of large areas of tarmacadam and concrete. Rapid rainfall can lead to flash floods. Engineers have placed our rivers and streams in underground tunnels and culverts. Any blockage of these watercourses can lead to instant flooding, as those who live close to the River Poddle in Kimmage found out yesterday. We need to allow for more green space, wetlands and flood plains as we develop new suburbs. Cleaning out watercourses with JCB’s can do more harm than good. Rivers can become racetracks, allowing water to be quickly funnelled to the next obstruction. The Avonmore River in Wicklow flooded Arklow, as it met a high tide coming the opposite direction yesterday.

In North Dublin, developers have argued for more development to take place, with temporary drainage with pumped systems. However, the low-lying land zoned for housing near Baldoyle Racecourse and further west could flood if a high tide and high rainfall are combined. Clearly, caution is required. Objectors to the re-development of Ballymun warned of floods if a new town was built without addressing the problem of flooding. The critics dismissed them as cranks, but they pointed out the downside of masses of new housing, if the flood drainage is not handled correctly. Unless we wish to become as water-conscious as Holland, we should avoid building on low-lying areas, where drainage can be dependent on high-tech pump solutions.

Planners and engineers will have to stand firm against proposals for developments in unsuitable areas. This is increasingly important, as they come under pressure to provide more housing. In some areas, Councillors proposed Section Four motions for new homes. However, the lands were marked as ‘liable to flooding’ on maps from one hundred years ago. The owners of these homes are now waking up the problems that were caused, as floodwaters lap at their doors.

Action is now required by National Government and by Local Authorities to tackle the problem. We need a Minister for the Environment who takes Climate Change seriously. Perhaps the weather over the last few days will concentrate the mind of Noel Dempsey as he sits down with his counterparts in The Hague next week. Our future and the World’s future depend on it. Closer to home our Planners and Engineers have to consider the implications of more severe weather events in the future. Development Plans will need to be ‘flood-proofed’ to prepare us for the worst. A more careful, holistic approach is needed. New thinking on ‘porous cities’ is required. This allows for increased wetland and marsh areas to duplicate the traditional floodplains and callows. It also allows for holding tanks to prevent flash flooding. Large paved areas should be avoided. In upland areas, peat bogs should be allowed to hold water and become saturated, instead of being drained and increasing river flows. River catchment plans are required that cross county boundaries. These would reduce risk of flooding, and allow greater co-operation between adjoining local authorities. New computer modelling using geographical information systems (GIS) allows planners to evaluate risks at an early stage. The County Emergency Plans should be revised to reflect this, Finally, the Civil Defence should have a higher profile so that people know where help can be found when problems arise, and the water is lapping at the door. ENDS