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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Niall Carson/PA/Alamy Ballycanavana stream in Co Waterford swollen after heavy rain

How nature, instead of concrete, could protect Ireland's towns from damaging floods

As flood threats grow, what can we do to stop other towns being hit like Midleton? Read an extract from The Journal’s climate newsletter.

This is an extract from the most recent edition of Temperature Check, The Journal’s monthly climate newsletter. To receive Temperature Check to your inbox, sign up in the box at the end of this article.

When Storm Babet hit the south of the country this month, it left destruction in its wake which locals said they couldn’t remember seeing in decades. The scale of the chaos it wrought has been a reminder for many, and a wake-up call for others, that climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and more intense storms.

After Storm Babet, Alan O’Connor, a Cork councillor based in Carrigtwohill, told Temperature Check that he visited an apartment building where some of the ground floor apartments had flooded.

“I spoke to a resident and it was heartbreaking. They moved in only recently and now they’ve had to move out until repairs are made.”

“People got in touch to try to bring to the council’s attention places where there was a need for sandbags or where roads had been flooded and damage had been done to put it on the council’s list of work,” O’Connor said.

“I took photographs of the places where flooding happened. Hopefully that can contribute to an assessment of what’s happened, how the floods have impacted people, and how we can mitigate against that going forward.”

That’s really the question now – what can be done to try to protect communities from the impacts of this type of extreme weather event again?

Dr Mary Bourke is an Associate Professor of Geography at Trinity College Dublin whose research specialises in geomorphology and natural flood management.

Speaking to The Journal for Temperature Check, Dr Bourke explained: “The real problem is that we haven’t recognised that by building on floodplains, we are putting ourselves in harm’s way. There are historical reasons for that [...] but we’re now dealing with the fact that we are in the way of natural floods.”

“Traditionally, we decided we were going to build the walls of the river higher and make the floor of the river deeper by dredging,” she said. “That worked – it got the water through the villages and towns without overtopping the bank – but all that was doing was moving the problem to the next neighbour down from there.”

Instead, rather than trying to seize control of nature, she said, we need to learn to work with it – a technique called nature-based solutions.

“There’s two approaches in Ireland. One is the hard engineering that will have to be deployed in these towns and villages that historically have evolved around a river system, because you’re not going to move a town and you’re not going to move a village,” Dr Bourke said.

“That’s fine, but there are a lot of other things that can be done and have been deployed across Europe that are really, really successful in terms of working with the river natural system.

“If you allow a river to reconnect to its own floodplain, the one that it built before we tried to straighten it, that slows everything down a little bit because it’s got to go the long way around rather than the short way down, and all of these measures that slow things down a little bit join together to be very, very effective.”

She pointed to how climate change means Ireland is “going to see a lot more floods and we’re going to see that the rain causing these floods is torrential”.

“We need to be approaching this not just thinking about one problem. At the moment, we’re building houses that are trying to be A-rated for energy consumption, and that’s fine, that’s good, but you can’t ignore the fact that we’re coming into a climate you also need to build house that are protected from floods,” she said.

“Stop thinking about one thing and think about what is the maximum we can get out of a particular development in terms of protecting people from climate change.”

Dr Mary Bourke also spoke on the most recent episode of The Journal’s The Explainer podcast. You can listen back to it on our website.

Similarly, Councillor Alan O’Connor emphasised that the floods must be seen in the context of climate change rather than as isolated events.

“In my experience, this feels like the first event of an extremity where the impact has been severe and it’s really brought home to me the risks of climate change,” he said.

“In terms of what we need to do going forward, I think we can’t omit to mention the climate question. Mitigating climate, taking climate action, reducing our emissions, and trying to reduce the severity of these events going forward,” he said. “We’re a small country, of course, but one person, one country, can make a difference.”

“These things will become more intense. Even if we take good climate action, flooding may happen again, it may become more frequent. The rainfall event which happened recently is very likely to happen again, so then we must look to adaptation.”

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