At this time of the year, as we approach the Winter season, it is opportune that we consider our preparedness as a country to respond to severe weather events such as flooding. I am acutely aware of the impact that the recent flooding has had on individual households and on communities at large. Since taking up my current position I have visited a number of areas affected by the recent storms, witnessed the damage caused and met and spoken with the people and business owners directly affected.
I acknowledge that people want assurance that the Government can provide support to them in response to a flood event and also assurance that it is planning to mitigate the risk from flooding in the future.
The Government’s Framework for Major Emergency Management underpins coordination of response to all emergencies in Ireland, including flooding. Through that Framework, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the Lead Government Department with national responsibility for co-ordinating the response to Severe Weather Emergencies including flooding. Local Authorities are designated as “lead agency” for response to flooding events within their administrative areas and for ensuring that effective arrangements are put in place to receive and respond to public service weather warnings issued by Met Éireann.
I want to recognise the proactive planning of the Local Authorities in putting in place temporary flood defences and putting response staff on standby in preparation for these recent weather events. Their planning and rapid response to flood events helped to mitigate the damage and devastation caused. Each local area has its own individual plan in the event of flooding. An Garda Síochana, Civil Defence and the HSE are all involved in these plans and I want too to acknowledge their work in responding to the recent floods.
In addition, the OPW is co-ordinating Ireland’s whole of Government approach to flood risk management across three strategic policy areas - Prevention, Protection and Preparedness. The Interdepartmental Flood Policy Co-ordination Group was established for the purpose of examining the potential non-structural measures that will inform the ten-year implementation strategy of the Flood Risk Management Plans and to ensure that policies that can benefit communities directly – to be prepared for and respond to flood risk, are carefully considered.
The Government also established the Shannon Flood Risk State Agency Co-ordination Working Group in 2016 to support existing plans in place to address flooding on the Shannon and to enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State Agencies involved with the River Shannon.
The Group has taken a number of significant decisions since its establishment, including targeted maintenance activities at a number of locations, trialling the lowering of the levels on Lough Allen and a study on the cause, degree and rate of restriction downstream of Parteen Weir. In October 2019, the Group agreed to a €7m strategic programme of maintenance and the removal of constrictions or ‘pinch points’ on the bed of the River Shannon at the Callows Region between Athlone and Meelick Weir. Progression of these works will be subject to the full environmental assessments required and planning consent to proceed. The decision to undertake these projects was noted by the Government in December 2019. Waterways Ireland has advised that it has commenced work on advancing the various interventions for these works with implementation expected to commence in 2021.
This investment as well as helping to manage flooding can support the tourism, navigation and agricultural sectors for this region.
In relation to the water levels on the River Shannon, the ESB manages the weirs, sluices and other works that are part of the Shannon Scheme, and the water levels on Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg. The levels in between the lakes are managed by Waterways Ireland for navigation purposes. Both organisations are members of the Group and communicate on a daily basis to ensure a co-ordinated approach to managing water levels on the river. Queries arising on the protocols for managing the water levels at any given time should be directed to the ESB and Waterways Ireland.
In relation to planning to mitigate flood damage in the future - on 3rd May 2018, the Office of Public Works launched 29 Flood Risk Management Plans and €1bn investment in flood risk over the coming decade. These Plans are the output from the Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) Programme - the largest ever flood risk study carried out in the State. The Plans set out the measures proposed to address the flood risk nationally, and include 119 new schemes to protect towns, villages and cities nationally. These include flood relief schemes recommended for both Rahan and Birr, Co. Offaly. Procurement of 60 of the 119 flood relief schemes is now progressing or, in some places, complete. These schemes will together with the 46 already complete (including a scheme in Tullamore, Co. Offaly) mean that 95% of at risk properties will be protected by Flood Relief Schemes.
I would like to conclude by assuring the Deputy and the Members of this House that I and the Government are working extremely hard to ensure that the greatest possible progress is made over the next number of years on the continued delivery of a very ambitious programme of investment in flood defence and flood risk management measures. The commitment of €1 billion in the National Development Plan to this objective is a clear sign of how high a priority this is for the Government.