|Reedbed in Terryland Forest Park, Dyke Road, Galway city|
Restoring bogs, wetlands and forests is key to flood defence
The large scale flooding being experienced by Ireland and destroying many people’s homes and livelihoods is partly a result of man-made global climate change where the warming of the atmosphere is leading to ever more stormy weather and heavy rainfall across north western Europe. But in the case of this country it is also due to the serious loss of natural habitats such as bogs, wetlands and floodplain meadows that use to soak up and retain water. Furthermore there is the added problem in our rural areas of compacted soil caused by intensive grazing and other modern farming practices as well as increased urbanisation characterised by concrete and tarmac surfaces which do not absorb rainwater. Rivers are becoming ever more disconnected from their natural floodplains by land reclamation for built development and the construction of defences that include forcing water into narrower channels that will inevitably overflow or burst their banks in this epoch of increased rainfall.
Building in Floodplains: A Madness Driven by Greed
Our politicians and the National Emergency Co-ordination group have to realise that building more flood-walls, culverts and canals are expensive solutions that in many cases are doomed to failure. Sustainable flood relief can only come about by making more space for water and not less which is sadly what we have been doing for far too long. Building in flood-plains against expert advice merely to satisfy the demands of landowners and property speculators was one of the most calamitous political errors of the last few decades and which is now coming back to haunt us. Recently former Minister of the Environment and Local Government Noel Dempsey stated that counties such as Galway, Roscommon and Cork that are suffering greatly at present were some of the very counties that the government had to issue directions to change their draft development plans because the guidelines on flood-risk management were being ignored. Don Moore of the Irish Academy of Engineering stated bluntly on RTE Radio News “that the message of the future is clear –don’t ever build on a flood plain.” The environmental NGO An Taisce were warning for decades of the consequences of building in such areas and in the process were harangued by politicians of the main political parties for being ‘anti-development’. In the case of Galway, the organisation has recently reminded the public of their disagreements with the blocking of turloughs in the southern part of the county and the deforestation in the Slieve Aughty mountains as well as their call for a single authority for the River Shannon. Insurance cover for huge numbers of families like my own who bought properties in what we were not told at the time were located in flood-plains is a ‘councillors-caused’ disaster that has to be addressed and accounted for.
Work with Nature, not against it
There is now an urgent need now to radically transform our approach by developing a new strategy to work with Nature and not against it. As well as restoring riverine reedbeds, marshes, callows, bogs and coastal wetlands, the state needs to partner local communities and landowners in implementing a nationwide policy of native tree planting to create forests and woodlands including in urban areas as we are doing in Galway city through the Terryland Forest Park where nearly 100,000 trees have been planted by a partnership of the city council, environmentalists, schools and residents groups since 2000. Recognised scientific research shows that one large tree can lift up to 450 litres of water out of the ground and discharge daily it into the air. It is estimated too that for every five percent of tree cover added to an area, storm-water runoff is reduced by approximately two percent.
We need to look at best methods of engineering water absorption into our urban built environment by for instance placing rooftop gardens on buildings, replacing concrete plazas by wooded parks and piping rainwater into toilet cisterns.
It would be a major policy shift for the Irish state to move towards expanding rather than destroying natural habitats. But we have to realize that we are part of nature and not above it. It was the latter philosophy that brought about catastrophic global climate change and the COP21 Paris international conference signed by all governments of the world recognised this. So now is the time for the Irish state to honour its international commitments and use the geographical processes of the Earth to develop long-term sustainable natural defenses against flooding.