I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the issue of flooding. Only two weeks ago, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to hear from Dáil colleagues on flooding matters on the Shannon and across the country and I outlined the Government’s ongoing work in tackling the issues.
I am very familiar with the devastation that can be caused by flooding for individual homeowners, businesses, landowners and communities. Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, I have visited a number of areas affected by recent storms and flooding, including Kenmare, Skibbereen, Bantry, Clifden, Dunmanway and Kilmallock. I have witnessed at first hand the damage and the distress caused in these communities. I have met and spoken to the people and business owners directly affected by flooding.
The Government understands the plight of these communities and we have a very strong record in managing flood risk in Ireland through a whole-of-government approach. I attended the recent meeting of the interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group and was impressed by the extent of measures already in place and being progressed to avoid construction in flood-prone areas, protecting at-risk communities and responding to reduce the impacts of flood events.
The catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme is informing the Government’s approach to managing flood risk. It was the largest study ever undertaken of our risk from significant flood events, so-called 100-year floods. Its output of 29 flood risk management plans gave the Government the evidence to progress 150 flood relief schemes in addition to the 46 major flood relief schemes that have been completed.
The additional schemes that are being progressed are underpinned by investment of €1 billion as part of the Government's National Development Plan 2018-2027. This significant level of funding reflects how determined the Government is to protect people, properties, businesses and communities from flooding. In just two years, this funding has allowed the OPW to accelerate from 33 to 93 the number of schemes being brought through to planning, design and construction stages.
This investment is providing real benefits to communities throughout the country. By way of example, the completed schemes are avoiding approximately €80 million worth of damage from floods on average every year, have avoided the flooding of many hundreds of properties during numerous recent events when areas would have flooded and are preventing the societal disruption and distress that many recent floods would otherwise have caused in communities.
Outside the major flood relief schemes, local flooding issues are being addressed by local authorities with support from the OPW under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme. This scheme provides funding for minor flood mitigation works or studies, costing up to €750,000 each, to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems. Since 2009, €39 million from the OPW minor works scheme has gone towards protecting 7,100 properties across 580 projects. Two thirds of these schemes are outside the CFRAM areas. The scheme is a valuable source of funding for local authorities to address local flooding issues. While the funding available under the scheme, following a review, recently increased by 50% to €750,000, I am glad to give consideration to increasing this further to €1 million. I hope to make a decision on it shortly.
The OPW is also responsible for the 11,500 km of river channel, including approximately 800 km of embankments which have formed part of the arterial drainage schemes since 1945. These are kept under proper repair and in an effective condition by the OPW through an annual maintenance programme that protects 260,000 ha of agricultural lands.
The Government’s once-off voluntary homeowners relocation scheme is providing humanitarian assistance to a number of properties worst affected by the floods in 2015 and for which there are no viable engineering solutions. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is introducing a scheme to work with those worst-affected farmers, including considering relocation of farmyards as an option.
In return for its investment in flood relief schemes, the Government expects protected homeowners and businesses to be able to access affordable flood insurance cover. Through the OPW’s memorandum of understanding with Insurance Ireland we are already seeing the level of insurance cover increasing in protected areas from an average of 77% in 2015 to 81% and up to 93% today in areas with fixed defences. However, the level of cover in areas protected by demountable defences remains lower. I have raised this issue with the Department of Finance and I will work with the Minister for Finance to resolve the concerns expressed by the insurance industry with demountable defences and will explore how greater transparency in flood insurance can be achieved.
I will now set out what is being done to address specific issues on the River Shannon. One of the six CFRAM study areas included a dedicated study of the flood risk of the Shannon river basin. The flood risk management plans derived from the CFRAM programme include 34 new flood relief schemes to protect towns in the Shannon river basin district. These new schemes, together with 11 additional schemes already completed, will protect 95% of properties at significant risk from flooding in the future. Of the 34 new schemes to be delivered for the Shannon area, work has commenced on 25, which are at various stages of development.
The Government established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016 to both enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon and support the work planned by the flood risk management plans. Senators will recall that the group was established, at that time, following severe flooding arising from a series of storms and a period of sustained rainfall between December 2015 and January 2016.
The Shannon group has representation by the CEOs of all the State agencies with a role on the Shannon, including ESB and Waterways Ireland. It is chaired by the OPW chairman and it has met on 13 occasions to date. On its establishment, a priority for the group was to develop a work programme within its first two months. This work programme highlighted the existing and extensive range of activities and co-ordination by all State agencies in 2016 to jointly and proactively address flood risk along the Shannon. These works are categorised under maintenance, flood relief works, water management, regulation and policy. Each year since then, the group has produced an annual work programme that highlights the ongoing diverse and broad scale of activity, and the proactive co-ordination between the State agencies to manage the flood risk along the River Shannon.
The Shannon group held public consultation days on its work programme and has met representative bodies, including the IFA. I recently met representatives of the IFA and it is my intention to meet all members of the Shannon flood-risk co-ordination working group bilaterally as well as other farming organisations.
The Shannon group has completed targeted maintenance activities at five locations along the Shannon river catchment. Works at these locations involved tree cutting and the removal of silt and emergent vegetation, which helped to improve the conveyancing of the river at these locations. These works required consents which needed to be obtained from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is not to be forgotten that I am like somebody looking to build a house; I and the OPW need to get permission. I am sure this is an issue Senators will wish to raise.
Lowering the water levels on Lough Allen has been trialled for the past three years. While weather-related, reaching the lower targeted levels agreed with the ESB will provide additional storage capacity during flood events to help alleviate any significant flooding that may occur. The Shannon group has agreed to continue with this trial on a temporary basis pending the completion of a flood-defence scheme for Carrick on Shannon.
In December 2019, the Government noted the studies by the Shannon group that support a programme of strategic maintenance to help mitigate flooding along the Shannon and the removal of the pinch points in the Shannon callows to help to address the summer flooding in the area and lower the navigation level in the area. A total of €7 million has been allocated for these works, which will progress following environmental assessment and planning permission. Waterways Ireland is the implementing body for these works, and it has advised the OPW that it is advancing the various interventions such as tree cutting and silt removal to commence strategic maintenance measures at 12 locations commencing in 2021.
The Shannon group recently completed a study of the cause, rate and degree of restrictions over time downstream of Parteen Weir in the lower Shannon, which can inform the options to help manage the flood risk in this part of the river.
All these measures and activities have been or will be carried out within the exiting powers and responsibilities of the State agencies. Where necessary, agreements and protocols have been established and agreed for delivering new initiatives.
Having met the group in recent weeks, it is my intention to refocus the group to look at short, medium and long-term measures. I am also committed to undertaking an examination over the coming nine months of the Shannon group’s legislative landscape to inform consideration of the establishment of this group on a statutory basis.
Delivering infrastructure, including the planned programme of flood-relief schemes takes time. I accept that progress can appear to be slow. The current regulatory framework is such that progress by my office in advancing its programme of activities is significantly impacted by a broad range of regulatory requirements which must be addressed and complied with. Like all individuals, agencies and companies we are required to comply with the requirements of environmental and planning legislation. We cannot just start digging in a river as some people expect us to do. We need to get permission, and this takes time. That said, my OPW colleagues and I are actively engaged with other Departments to ensure that required flood measures are delivered to communities in the shortest timeframe possible.
Even after planning consent is granted, schemes are still at risk of judicial review, as Cork City Council is experiencing with a public realm project which contains elements of flood defences identified through the lower Lee flood-relief scheme. In the meantime, homes and businesses remain exposed to repeated flooding.
As I said in the Dáil on 2 November, I want to work with Oireachtas colleagues on protecting properties from flooding.
My family has experience of what this does to properties and I am open to reforms that Members wish to bring forward, particularly in the area of planning and environmental compliance, that might make our delivery to people and individuals faster. In a roundabout way, I am saying I know about the problems as much as other Members. If there are solutions that they can propose, I am all ears. By working together, I hope we can make positive changes for the communities throughout the country that have been affected so badly and that continue to be ravaged by floods.
I will now address the issue of climate change and its impact on our communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that for a 1.5°C rise in temperature, the global mean sea level could rise by up to approximately 1 m by 2100. Projections of more intense Atlantic storms could increase surge events and wave heights and Met Éireann has also projected that in Ireland, the autumns and winters may become wetter. It is hard to believe they could get any wetter but there is a possible increase in heavy precipitation events of approximately 30%. The Government’s climate change sectoral adaptation plan for flood risk management for 2019 to 2024 is ensuring that our work today is adaptable to climate change impacts in the future.
The impact from sea level rises and more intense storms increase the risk of coastal erosion. The Government has established a cross-departmental group to address this cross-sectoral issue. I, along with my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, attended the first meeting of this group.
I have given, in the time available, just some detail of the work completed and under way by the Government that is comprehensively managing Ireland’s flood risk. The Government and I, through the OPW, are working hard to ensure that the greatest progress is made on the delivery of am=n ambitious programme of investment in flood defence and flood risk management measures. I am sure that Senators will agree that this commitment will have a positive impact on the lives of individual homeowners in their areas, together with businesses, landowners and communities at risk of significant flooding, particularly those which have repeatedly experienced the devastation brought about by severe flood events. I look forward to working with Senators constructively in the delivery of our flood risk management programme.
I heard a positive contribution in the Dáil the other night from one of the Opposition Deputies. It was said that water does not care what kind of door a person has; it does not care if it is a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin door. It will go in one door and out the other. This matter is above politics. Members were very cognisant of that in their contributions in the Dáil, and I am anxious to hear suggestions for reform from Senators this evening. If they have specific concerns on specific flood relief schemes, I might not have the answers this evening but I will certainly revert to them.