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, the Tánaiste, 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. From the outset the Government’s priority has been to protect life and then infrastructure, property and businesses. The national co-ordination group has met over 30 times since 3 December. I pay tribute to all of those officials who gave up significant amounts of holiday time to meet on an almost daily basis for a very sustained period. A high level of community resilience was visible, where communities and individuals worked successfully, over a sustained period in many cases, with local authorities and other bodies to defend homes and properties at risk of flooding. People came to the assistance of their neighbours and helped to ensure that normal life continued, as much as possible, in flood affected areas.
I 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 the Defence Forces, Civil Defence, the Irish 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. The floods arose from unprecedented levels of rainfall in the past month, coupled with back-to-back storms. November saw average rainfall levels of between 130% and 190% across Met Éireann’s network of weather stations. In December, we had an entire winter’s rain in just one month, making it the wettest December on record, according to Met Éireann's records. The rainfall was also exceptional in its persistence and force. In addition to flooding, the storms had a major impact on essential services, including supplies of power and water.
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 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. Since 1995, the OPW, in co-operation with local authorities, has constructed 36 major flood defence schemes at a cost of almost €500 million. Some five further schemes are under construction, with 26 more at the stage of planning and design. Of the 7,000 properties protected by the OPW’s completed major urban schemes, fewer than 20 were affected by flooding. It is worth dwelling on that point. Where we have developed flood defence schemes, they have worked, even during the period when we had rainfall that we have never before experienced in this country. That is a tribute to the work done by the OPW, local authorities and communities which provided input to ensure the schemes were appropriate for the community's concerns. In fact, despite record river levels, towns that were previously vulnerable such as Clonmel, Mallow and Fermoy, avoided any significant flooding.
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 political gain out of the crisis. We will spend more on flood defences in the next five years than we, as a country, have spent in the past 20. 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 in the past 20. That is our record in government. The Government has already committed to schemes in Bandon and Crossmolina, two areas that were significantly impacted on 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 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 River Shannon that have been identified as being at risk of flooding. It will also ensure 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 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 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 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 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 on. The Department's work in this regard, with the current phase of engagement with the industry, will provide us with these 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 complete 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, again, pay tribute to all of the agencies, volunteers and communities that 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.