Water water everywhere - Margaret Rossiter’s Column

WE SHOULD have long since learned that water goes where water wants to go, and while engineers may seek to control it, it will not always be controlled. It is a powerful force of nature with a mind of its own.

But, unless our homes have been inundated, and we have been personally affected, our memories of flooding can be selective and short-lived. It is not unlike having a baby, the anxieties associated with the immediacy of birth are parked until the next baby is imminent.

Have we learned anything from the experience of flooding? If we had, why have we continued to make the same mistakes over and over again; building houses in close proximity to waterways; ignoring natural drainage; culverting and restricting the flow of our streams and destroying our bogs and wetlands, with their great natural water-holding capacities.

If every picture tells a story, then the recently developed (offspring of the Celtic Tiger), Marsh Meadows area of New Ross is illustrative of the amnesia of Planning Authorities. As the name implies, this was a large section of wetlands into which the Barrow over-spilled in times of heavy rain. It was ‘drained,’ the levels were raised and then ‘developed’ to accommodate a number of business premises, small industries and residences. So why was everybody surprised when this area of marsh reclaimed its age-old drainage rights when the river recently broke its banks?

Nearer home, there was flooding at Greenane, Dungarvan Road, resulting in the disruption of traffic. Even while memories of previous flooding were still green, the planning authorities gave permission for a very substantial development on this road, precisely in an area of land where there was clear evidence of a channel, an alternate accommodation of over-flow from the nearby river Suir in times of flooding.

A section of marsh adjoins this site, and is now doing what nature intended it to do - it is retaining a large expanse of water, but a smaller section of these wetlands, where reeds and flaglillies once grew, has been ‘reclaimed’ in recent years. To what extent has the building development and the drainage contributed to the flooding of the road?

Does any local authority undertake any reassessment of planning decisions with a view to avoiding the mistakes of the past? Bearing in mind the enormous cost of building river walls and berms in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, does Waterford County Council consider it prudent to erode (by so-called development) the estuary wetlands? Granted this erosion is on a very small scale, little bit by little bit, but these little bits eventually reach a harmful destructive aggregate.

It is now accepted that there is an urgency in the building of flood defences, both on our rivers and coastline, though it is questionable how effective, long-term, these so-called defences will be in the context of the fury of Atlantic storms. To suggest that it might be wise to just abandon areas of our coast to the sea is to risk unpopularity at best.

Or to suggest that hugely expensive walls, berms and demountables, on our rivers, might be accompanied by the parallel conservation of the natural drainage, is to risk, again at best, being labelled a harmless nutter, an ‘oul eejit.’

Yet, that is what is currently happening on some of the catchments of Europe’s great rivers. And in this, allied with, but a far less expensive, approach to flood controls, Ireland appears to be a very slow learner.

I am personally familiar with a stream, adjacent to a village in the suburbs of a large Bavarian city where my daughter lives. It is a tributary of a river which itself is a tributary of the Main. This stream drains a long flat area of rich agricultural land, and is gradually being ‘re-naturalised.’ Neat concrete containing banks are being removed so that the stream has space to ‘pool,’ thus slowing down the flow of water into the river.

At the same time, small groves of water-loving trees, willows and sallows, are being planted, along with the re-introduction of water plants, all contributing to absorption and retention. This is slow work, portions of which are being carried out by local authorities from year to year. It is not spectacular and it is not expensive, but, long-term, it is working with nature rather than battling in conflict. I understand the same conservation of small streams and rivers, the headwaters of drainage into the Danube, is currently underway.

Meanwhile in Ireland, we have been hellbent on destroying our natural drainage, building on our floodplains, re-claiming our swamps, eroding our bogs, dumping into our marshes, culverting our streams, and then building houses on top of them. A EU directive for the conservation of a few of our rapidly-disappearing raised bogs, brought an outpouring of public and political protest.

The very expensive engineering solution of walls and berms is now urgent. While the long term viability of these remains to be tested, they do keep the floods out of our homes and incidentally act as a ‘cover-up’ for the terrible past planning mistakes of local authorities. Is there any prospect that this immediate solution, could be accompanied by a wider more comprehensible allied conservation of nature’s own flood controls?

It is unlikely. We do not ‘do’ long-term planning in Ireland. And conservation? Well, that’s for the birds!