“I’m not the Minister for snow,” then Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, famously said in 2009 during the floods and freezing conditions that affected Ireland. The Irish government’s failure led to a great deal of unnecessary suffering among ordinary citizens.
During the recent floods, the government tried to act on some of the lessons learned from the flooding and severe weather of six years ago. The National Emergency Coordination Group was convened early to deal with the crisis. All of the major stakeholders – government departments, local authorities, the Office of Public Works, the HSE, an Garda Siochana, the Defence Forces, ESB, Civil Defence, Coast Guard, Met Eireann – worked to coordinate and manage a coherent response. Decisions were being made and communicated on a daily basis by a task force that never seemed to go off duty.
While this looked like a rare example of Irish joined-up thinking at local and national level, there was some criticism too. There was anger and frustration among some of the people meeting government ministers after a week or more of fighting a losing battle with the elements.
Once again, the focus of attention has shifted to future prevention. And while questions are again being asked about the chronic lack of investment in flood defence infrastructure and engineering projects, there were some evidence that we have learned some lessons. Where culverts were reinforced, they ran clear, and coped with an enormous volume of rapidly moving water. No hospital was forced to shut down, no elderly or infirm people were put at risk, and public servants clearly made superhuman efforts to ensure that things weren’t a lot worse.
Clearly, while politicians can’t defeat nature, they can plan for it. And that means a growing recognition that further flooding is something we can expect in the future. Whether the recent storms are a manifestation of climate change or not, they are certainly a warning that we urgently need to plan. An immediate result of the recent flooding is the establishment of a new Flood Forecasting Unit to be staffed by OPW and Met Eireann. The government has also pledged to examine the issue of community resilience, with lessons learned from recent events about how best to engage with and support those suffering from adverse weather events.
Ireland cannot afford to relax now that the worst of the storms are behind us. Whichever government is elected in a few weeks’ time, it must put climate preparation at the forefront of its agenda.