Floods: the real scandal we should all be talking about

25 Aug 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Aug 2017

The rain will come again Pic: Inge Maria, Unsplash

The reaction to the floods that devastated swathes of Northern Ireland this week failed to address a catastrophic failure of public policy. 

Northern Ireland is simultaneously the most vulnerable to and least prepared for part of the United Kingdom to flooding.

A research paper funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and published last month reveals that a much higher proportion of people in Northern Ireland live in areas vulnerable to flooding than in any other part of the UK.  An astonishing 25% of the total population exposed to frequent flooding are in the 5% most vulnerable neighbourhoods – that’s five times the UK average. Sadly, and perhaps, predictably most of those at risk are economically disadvantaged and less likely to have their homes insured.

It is unacceptable for anyone in politics or government to regard flooding incidents as “Acts of God” implying that they are freak incidents with little prospect of reoccurrence.

As a result of climate change extreme weather events are increasingly frequent. Climate Change NI runs an excellent rolling log of these on its website which can be accessed here.

They are, of course, examples of extreme weather, but extreme weather is becoming normal throughout the world. In Northern Ireland the highest risk we run is of flooding.

Consider one area which was not even affected by the floods of the past few days, Belfast. It is extremely vulnerable to flooding as it is, and the sea level is rising by at least 3 mm per annum

The danger of flooding is one of the biggest risks we face in Northern Ireland. Yet the only time it is discussed is in the immediate aftermath of a flood.

This week has been particularly instructive. There has been criticism of the Met Office for only issuing a Yellow Warning in the morning of the downpour. There has been criticism of the Department of Infrastructure whose emergency Floodline service proved incapable of responding to demands, and there have been the usual and legitimate calls for compensation for all those affected.

It is time we moved on from that and had a serious debate about why we are so vulnerable to flooding and yet not doing remotely enough to combat it.

In September of last year just before the Assembly became engulfed in the RHI scandal the Assembly Research department published a paper entitled Managing Flood Risk in Northern Ireland – Are We Prepared?

In short the answer was No.

It cited the impact of Storm Desmond on parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh in 2015 and concluded that incidents of localised flooding were increasing.

The report states the following: “The NI Executive accepts that Northern Ireland’s drainage infrastructure is insufficient to meet the future requirements expected of it – to the extent that it is actively stunting economic development – particularly in the greater Belfast area. In Northern Ireland, 46,000 of the 830,000 properties (6%) could be at significant risk of flooding due to their location in coastal or river flood plains while a further 20,000 properties are sited in an area at risk of flooding from a significant rainfall event.”

This confirms that the government is aware of the problem. It has even worked up a strategy for managing it. This has five aspects:

  1. Deliver sustainable flood resilient development;
  2. Manage the catchment to reduce flood risk;
  3. Provide sustainable integrated drainage in rural and urban areas;
  4. Improve flood resistance and resilience in high flood risk areas;
  5. Be prepared for extreme weather events.

One important implication of this has never been publicly debated. The strategy marks an abandonment of the traditional methods of combating flood risks by building flood walls and increasing the flow and capacity of rivers, for example. This will not be good news to many currently vulnerable households and businesses. There will need to be debate about how people impacted by coastal erosion and flooding are compensated and relocated.

The bottom line however is that the cost of introducing the measures proposed is £750 million for Greater Belfast alone. Costs for the rest of Northern Ireland have not even been estimated. There is no money for that. So the Department of Infrastructure has a strategy to fix the problem but no budget to carry out the necessary work.

This may seem bad enough. It gets worse. A more detailed paper was presented to the Assembly on the same day which considers policy and legislative responses to flooding and coastal erosion risks.

It reveals that 19.5% of Northern Ireland’s coastline suffers from erosion a process set to accelerate due to rising sea levels. Currently 1,800 people in 720 households are at risk – a much smaller number than those vulnerable to flooding but coastal erosion ha greater impact on public safety, economic activity and the environment.

Despite this Northern Ireland is again uniquely vulnerable in that no single government agency is responsible for coastal erosion risk management. The report states there is a requirement for legislation to correct this dangerous state of affairs. There is currently no Assembly so no immediate prospect of this anomaly being corrected.

There is a lot at stake. It is not just homes that are at risk. In 2014 severe tidal surges during storms destroyed stretches of roads in Rostrevor and between Millisle and Ballywalter on the Ards Peninsular. In total 144 kilometres of road and 44 kilometres of rail line are vulnerable.

With no overall responsibility for policy Northern Ireland falls back on the so-called Bateman Formula which gives responsibility to those government agencies owning assets at risk to protect them from erosion so, for example, Transport NI has responsibility to protect the roads and rail network with parts of the shoreline the responsibility of the Department for Agriculture.

Climate change is a fact. Yet Northern Ireland also has the unique distinction in the UK of not having a Climate Change Act.

Taking all this together it is hard to imagine how Northern Ireland could be less prepared for the next flood, and the one after that.


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