A NATIONAL SPATIAL PLAN, incorporating all aspects of land use, could mitigate flood risk long term.
We are moving into uncharted waters as record flood levels bring home the fact that climate change is real and here to stay. We are starting to realise that this will impact on everything and involve everyone.
We need to tackle the source of the problem and at the same time also adapt to the changes that are now inevitably going to take place.
The international climate agreement reached in Paris was historic because for the first time every country has agreed to try and stop the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the problem.
We now need similar agreement here at home as to how we adapt and cope with the extreme weather events that are on the way.
It’s not someone else’s problem
We may have thought this was an issue for someone else, but as an island people, perched on the edge of the Atlantic, we are on the frontline of one of the great shifts that is taking place. The temperatures in the northern hemisphere are increasing ahead of global averages and the jet stream and the North Atlantic Ocean currents are altering in new, uncertain ways.
We are exposed in a manner we have never seen before and we need a long term vision of how we can protect our country against the changes we can expect. Rather than just relying on short term solutions such as building higher flood walls and dredging deeper into our river beds, we need is a new national spatial plan which takes a more long term view.
Such a plan does not exist at the moment. It will need to integrate new housing, transport, and employment patterns with a scientific assessment of how we manage changes to our water cycle.
We need a plan which works in a co-ordinated way, so that we manage rainfall from the mountain top right down to the sea shore. It should be based around regional districts that match natural river catchment areas, rather than relying on the flawed regional governance structures which Phil Hogan put in place.
We need to start planning, now
Every aspect of the use of our land will have to be measured on the basis of whether it increases or decreases flooding risk. We need to devise a new agriculture policy which maximises the long term stability and fertility of our soils and which provides proper incentives to set aside large areas of land as a store of water, carbon and biodiversity.
We need to stop draining and excavating our bogs, restoring them so that they can fulfil their natural flood management functions.
Our forestry industry is also going to have to change. At the moment we are planting areas that would be better maintained as marginal wetlands and we are using a monoculture and clear felling technique that makes flooding worse. A continuous cover form of forestry produces a better timber product, is better for the local environment, and helps slow the flow of water.
We will also have to make significant new investments in our water management system. Storm waters currently flow into our waste water treatment system, which pumps raw sewage straight into our rivers and coastal waters.
We need to build a new system that separates the two and also provide more water storage capacity to cope with summer droughts, which, ironically, may be one of the other problems we face because of climate change.
The Cabinet is now coming up with a variety of belated promises to deal with the immediate flooding crisis but their credibility is shot after weeks of inaction at the early stage of this recent crisis and after five years of ignoring the big environmental issues we face.
The Government has been using their political capital in Europe to try and absolve Ireland of any responsibility of tackling climate change. Following the agreement in Paris we can now see what a mistake that has been. Moreover, ignoring the issue seems to have left them blind to the sort of storm punches we have seen delivered in recent weeks.
Thankfully, the worst of the stormy weather may be abating for the moment and river waters might have a chance to recede. The risk though, is that as flood waters disappear, so does the determination to implement the necessary changes.
Unfortunately, our political system is so attentive to the short term media cycle that it tends to ignore long term issues once the immediate threat has passed.
We need to raise the alarm about climate and at the same time plan our long term adaptation strategy. We are not helpless but our response has to be written into a proper National Spatial Plan.
Tackling climate has to be top of the agenda for whoever is in the next government and this issue needs to be centre stage in the upcoming election debate.
Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party Comhaontas Glas. He is appearing at the MacGill Summer School tonight for a panel discussion on Irish Water. For updates follow@greenparty_ie and @EamonRyan on Twitter.