Ireland’s recent flooding is only a taste of things to come. Few towns in Ireland even have a flood defence scheme, much less a system of levees. One challenge facing Ireland by the year 2050 is the persistent risk of rainfall. Increased rainfall brings with it an increased risk of floods, as well as storms as powerful and disruptive as current weather conditions being experienced around the country.
The increased rainfall caused by climate change will be accompanied by storms and flash floods, like those we saw in August 2008, when the M50 was closed because a section of it was underwater.
On the night of 9 August 2008, a record 76.2 mm of rain fell, overwhelming sewage and drainage systems, which were already strained due to a high tide. Large sections of the infrastructure around Dublin were closed for twenty-four hours while the water was pumped away, businesses in Kildare and Celbridge had the contents of their stores destroyed by flooding, and a train derailed.
Homes across Ireland were damaged; many were uninsured for flooding because of the rarity of the event. Lives were lost on the roads due to the perilous driving conditions experienced during those days. The record 76.2 mm of rainfall broke the previous national record set in 1986 by Hurricane Charlie. In Cork, the rainfall record was set in 1975, and that too was broken. The flash flooding we saw in August 2008 was described by the media as a once-in-a-century, rare-as-owl’s-teeth event.
The trouble is that, thanks to climate change, we will see more of these ‘freak’ occurrences, and their impacts will only worsen unless preventative measures are put in place. We have seen a 'once in 800' year event this week. Next year we'll see another.
A once-in-a-century event will become a once-in-a-year event. This is a cause for concern. When we think about making our homes, businesses and infrastructure safe against flash floods and freak occurrences, there will always be the tendency to seek the average when costing the measures to prevent these events. In August 2008, drainage systems around the country were overwhelmed by the flooding. The systems did not have the capacity to cope with an extreme event. The sewage and drainage systems on Irish roads were not designed to deal with 76.2 mm of rainfall in one twenty-four-hour period. Homes which were close to rivers whose banks had not burst in living memory were flooded – to the shock of the home-owners.
This pattern has repeated itself in recent days.
The influence of extreme weather events on Irish life will only increase for our grandchildren in 2050. How they cope with these events will be determined largely by the planning processes we put in place to ensure that the impacts of these rare events are reduced for the average Irish person. People and institutions are already adapting.
It is a question of how much to adapt, and how much foresight the government displays in dealing with the current crises, and those to come.