Fighting against the tide: Ireland’s floods

After a winter devastated by floods, Rosemarie Gibbons questions what the response will be to this near-annual problem for rural communities. It’s the stuff of Denzel Washington movies. Natural disasters – be it storms, floods, tornados – strike cities and towns of innocent civilians, and the hero somehow single-handedly fights the force of nature, the ‘act of God’ and wills it to stop. Despite some damage, Denzel gets awarded a medal from the mayor, and everyone goes home happy.It’s a far cry from the situation in Carrick-on-Shannon, Limerick, or rural Kilkenny. There doesn’t seem to be a Hollywood ending in sight for those whose homes have been damaged and lives put on hold as a result of the recent chronic flooding in many parts of the country.  The Office of Public Works’ Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management division (CFRAM) have reported that over 66 areas across the country, including those named above, have been deemed ‘flood risk’ areas.Since early December, we have heard and seen many accounts in the media of exhausted families and workers stressing the sheer desperate conditions they are living in. In one particularly harrowing episode of Liveline at the beginning of December, there were shocking accounts of people not leaving their houses for weeks on end, farmers losing stock and land by the day and general despair over the lack of government officials or organisations swooping in to help. People from unaffected areas in Dublin or other counties called in to offer their support, but the episode left a lot of people feeling even more helpless than before.As a result of seeing the damage the floods have caused around the country, it is puzzling to even those least affected by the floods that in some parts of the country, prescheduled building projects and housing developments in risk areas around the Shannon are still due to go ahead. News that a field in Galway was given the green light by planners to continue with a development of 48 houses was greeted with anger by local residents, as it was common knowledge that the land is a flood plain. It is difficult for those who have had to evacuate their own homes in the area to watch further houses being built that will, without a doubt, also be affected by flood water in the years to come.In addition to the intrusion of these developments, existing plans to provide some viable relief for residents in affected areas are being held at a standstill for equally dubious reasons. In December, a flood relief scheme for the Dunkillen River area in County Galway was postponed by An Bord Pleanála, who had been due to make a decision on the scheme for some time. Postponed until February 29th of this year, it left local residents with little support during the worst period of flooding.Smaller communities are pulling together as best they can, but relying on others can’t be a permanent solution for those in rural communities. For many of those affected, access to their jobs, schools or even to shops to get groceries can be completely cut off. It is clear to see why locals in these flood-affected rural areas are distrustful towards those in the Government who hold the most power. As one affected Gort resident stressed to Joe Duffy on Liveline, “all these things are dragging on – but nothing’s getting done”.As a result of furious public outcry over the lack of political support regarding the floods, Taoiseach Enda Kenny discussed the possibility of relocating emergency funding at the beginning of December to deal with flood damages all around the country in an optimistically-labelled ‘clean-up operation’. Yet there is a feeling of ‘too little too late’ surrounding the Taoiseach’s ideas. Local residents and business owners in one of the worst-affected areas, Bandon in Cork, were distrustful of the Taoiseach’s promises. A similar promise of a flood defence scheme, a project of the Office of Public Works, failed to be fully completed in 2009.As the Dáil broke for Christmas, there was certainly a feeling of abandonment by those in rural areas by their government. Although the poor timing of flooding couldn’t be helped by any government official, nor could control of the weather, the feeling that more could always have been done lingers. If flood defence schemes were set out in 2009, there is no excuse for how little progress had been made by 2015. Without funding, local officials are powerless to provide local residents with any emergency measures, and are depending on residents  volunteering their time to man pumps or provide transport to town for more rural residents.
Smaller communities are pulling together as best they can, but relying on others can’t be a permanent solution for those in rural communities…
The schemes that currently exist, such as OPW’s ‘CFRAM’ programme, are not trusted by farmers who are affected by flooding due to their lack of real material solutions, like flood gates for farmyards. Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin pointed out there was an “underspend of €34m on flood defences over the past two years”, which is no small figure. Whilst the Government unveiled the newest solutions to the flooding, including an additional €10 million to the clean-up fund, and hardship recognition and fodder replacement schemes to become available to farmers affected by the flooding, the Taoiseach had to stretch his recognitions to those who responded swiftly to the floods such as “emergency services personnel, Local Authority workers and all the volunteers”.Whether or not the roll out of these schemes will offer any solace to those who already live in dread of the inevitable flooding next winter, there is no doubt that those local volunteers will bear the brunt again of protecting family, friends and neighbours.It’s easy to distance oneself from these situations when you aren’t living in an affected area, or haven’t grown up in a community that is mainly agricultural or is isolated from larger towns. However, ruined land and crops in turn affects harvests, which affects food production, which affects everyone, if only through the increased price of their weekly shop.Flooding isn’t an issue that affects rural counties exclusively, or one that will fix itself in a month. It is the same disconnect that is often felt by smaller rural communities between them and the Government - that their voices aren’t heard, that their issues are too specific to be taken seriously by the rest of the country. It certainly isn’t an issue that can be fixed by the end of an episode of Liveline. And while it’s so much easier to focus on international issues and criticise from afar, it’s time we pay a lot more attention to the problem we share.