Gentle Decline 2/2: Floods & Farmers

In which the spirit is alright, but the flesh doesn't seem to be getting on with it.

Hello. Last issue, I said I should go see what kind of governmental preparation is being made for handling climate crisis in Ireland. I’ve done some of that, focusing first on flooding, because it’s the most immediate and evident aspect of change. Much of the specifics of what follows is very Irish-oriented, but I reckon it’s of use to the more international of my readers as an example of what information you can dig up, at least.

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(There’s a somewhat grim summary in the Independent of what’s in store for Ireland, should you need a baseline.)

There’s an OPW (Office of Public Works) website for flood preparations, Its front page opens, somewhat defensively, with “Floods are a natural and inevitable part of life in Ireland. They are usually caused by a combination of events including overflowing river banks, coastal storms or blocked or overloaded drainage ditches. Numerous severe floods have occurred throughout the country in the last decade.” I have found one mention of climate on the whole site, which occurs in a bullet list of “flooding facts”; “Scientists predict that climate change may lead to more frequent flooding in the future”. That’s it.

Further, I’m pretty sure that some of this material was copied from somewhere else; there’s mention of water rising up from below “where the ground is made of permeable material, such as chalk, gravel or sand.” There are, through various accidents of geology, almost no chalk deposits in the Republic (I know of a very small one in Kerry, which has no buildings on it and likely never will), and the only real ones on the island at all are in Antrim, in Northern Ireland. So wherever that piece was written, it wasn’t on the basis of local risk or knowledge.

A second site, also by the OPW, is called Why there are two is unclear; directs the user to in various places, as well as the main OPW site (largely via broken links). There’s some significant weasel-wordage on before they’ll let you see maps. “The Flood Maps, and the content on this Website, are provided to comply with the requirements of the Regulations and do not, and are not intended to, constitute advice. Professional or specialist advice should be sought before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the Flood Maps or the Website content.” This site does allow you to see what anti-flooding measures have been undertaken in a specific area, if any.

I’ve tried a few in my immediate area, and a few at random around the areas where people I know live, and so far, everything is to do with clearing waterways and drainage, and making sure the floodwaters move downstream as quickly as possible, which seems like a fascinatingly short-sighted sort of NIMBYism. If everyone shunts floodwaters downstream, then somewhere downstream is inevitably going to be overwhelmed - the relevant river estuary at high tide, if nowhere else. And a lot of our river estuaries have towns; around here, everything drains into the Liffey, which flows into the sea at Dublin (where Nina and I saw pretty extensive flooding in October 2011, before a lot of this clearance and downstreaming happened).

As an aside, there’s a paper available via UCC which shows the number of floods in Cork between 1841 and 1988, from which the map below is extracted. For those not familiar, the “main areas prone to flooding” essentially comprise all the city centre and quite a bit more.

The upward trend in flooding over that 147 years is pretty clear, but what’s also of interest is the amount of rainfall necessary to cause flooding, which decreases markedly. That’s due to riverbank clearances, tree cutting, drainage of otherwise absorbent land, more area under concrete or tarmac, and so forth. There’s a more up-to-date version of that map here, in an article in which you can absolutely hear the Cork accent.

It’s with that kind of thing in mind that I also went looking for information on these sites about planting trees, rewilding, or otherwise providing for absorption of potential flood water. There is, in a report on called “Implementing the National Flood Risk Policy: Report on Measures in Place and Proposed to Address Ireland’s Flood Risk”, a section on expected impacts of climate change. It’s a couple of paragraphs, deep into the report, but it’s there, and it’s fairly realistic. It says: “It is expected that climate change will impact on flood risk in Ireland”, and that the planning for flood handling has looked at a “Mid-Range Future Scenario” (20% more rainfall, sea level rise of 500mm) and a “High-End Future Scenario” (30% more rainfall, sea level rise of 1000mm). That is honestly more acknowledgement than I was expecting.

And there are some remarkably enlightened looking bits of text dealing with flood prevention:

The Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) is focusing in particular on the preservation of various habitats and species, mitigating climate change and improving water quality. It contains a number of actions which aid the protection of watercourses.

Generally, Bord na Móna cutaway bogs that flood naturally will be permitted to flood during a flood event unless there is a clear environmental and/or economic case to maintain pumped drainage.

(Bord na Móna, for the non-Irish readers, is “The Turf Board”, a semi-state company founded in the 1940s to “develop” Irish peat bogs. And I am aware that “scheme” in other forms of English implies theatrical villainy; here it just means “plan” or “process”.)

Both of these measures look pretty sensible, on paper. However, it turns out that the GLAS closed in 2016, and the arrangements made with those who signed up for it look to have had a five-year duration. Bord na Móna, on the other hand, appears to be getting out of turf-cutting as fast as possible, and is undertaking a number of projects to help with regeneration and carbon absorption. There’s the usual amount of chuntering from farmers, manifest here as the ICMSA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association), about their livelihoods not being affected by the re-wetting of 80,000 acres of peatlands, etc. Should you wish to know more about the ICMSA, well, they feel they’re under “constant attack on their livelihoods and the economic viability of rural Ireland by the most aggressive and arrogant elements of the environmental movement”, per their own website. I can’t say I’m a fan.

Overall, there’s more happening on flood preparation than I expected, but not enough, and the closure of the GLAS means that much of the planning as written isn’t going to work well. The farming community - particularly dairy - seem to be firmly opposed to any change, and that’s something that can’t stand in the long run. See also the propaganda efforts, which are frankly reprehensible. More on this in due course, I feel.

Some other bits: The Harvard Gazette has a collection of poetry and art about “an artful response to the warming climate”. It’s from 2018, much of it is only so-so, but there’s one piece in there by Amanda Gorman, recently seen reading poetry into the global consciousness at President Biden’s inauguration, and that’s worth reading/listening to.

There’s now some belief that the continued warming of the planet might be halted at 3 degrees. That’s well above the threshold of 1.5C that’s necessary to meet the Paris agreement, but not quite the utter disaster of 4 or 5 degrees. The rest of the article linked there is a weird mix of grim statistics (below 2 degrees is impossible), and oddly hopeful statements, tempered by the idea that much of what has been promised has only been promised, not enacted. And the news-to-me that New Orleans’ levees will probably, even after massive upgrades, not be effective much past 2023. There’s also the entirely expected (by me, at least) update that ice loss is now in line with the worst predictions of the IPCC, which might well put the mockers on the 3 degrees thing.

This issue brought to you by a small amount of actual snow, an attempt to keep to a schedule, and much assisted research from Cee. I'm giving up on trying to say what the next issue will be in advance, but I'm taking requests - hit reply to make yours.

Gentle Decline is on Twitter as @gentledecline, which I’m using more these days.

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