Revealed: Cities and towns most at risk of flooding as Storm Ciarán heads for Ireland

OPW identified cities at risk five years ago – but some projects are not yet off the table

These include the project for Midleton in County Cork, which has suffered devastating flooding in the last two weeks, and Enniscorthy in County Wexford, where locals kept anxious watch last week as the Slaney came within inches of overflowing its banks again to kick.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) has a fund worth 1.3 billion euros to finance flood protection measures in 25 counties until 2030.

However, it is impossible to say how many projects will be completed by then or how much of the fund is expected to be used.

Storm Ciarán is expected to reach the south of Ireland on Wednesday and Thursday. Meteorological maps show Munster and south Leinster will be the worst affected by the storm and flooding may occur.

Concerns about flooding are increasing after Met Éireann recorded above-average rainfall nationally for three consecutive months from July to September.

October has also seen extreme flooding in several regions and more heavy rain is forecast this week as Storm Ciarán moves towards Europe.

With the ground already saturated before the winter rains even begin, there are fears that fast-flowing rivers could once again spill over into homes and businesses.

In 2018, the OPW conducted a detailed nationwide flood risk assessment. It found that 118 major flood relief programs are needed across the country.

Of these, 54 have been classified as less urgent and remain on a list of projects to be re-examined at some point in the future.

Measures have been prioritized for the rest, but only a few have made it to the construction phase or even have building permits.

Of these, 36 are in Phase 1 of the five-stage process, suggesting that preliminary designs are being produced.

Another 14 are not even in Stage 1 yet as area surveys and data collection still need to be completed. Sixteen are in Phases 2 to 4, but some of these began before 2018 and others appear to have stalled at their current stage.

The OPW says more than 50 projects have been completed, but the published list shows that they began and in many cases were completed before 2018, some even as far back as the 1990s.

According to the OPW, around 23,000 properties would be protected as part of the plans to be advanced with the €1.3 billion fund.

However, it was said that no concrete information could be provided.

Flooding on Main St., Midelton, Co.Cork after the Owenacurra River burst its banks following heavy rain

“Flood relief programs are large, complex, multi-year projects that face a variety of issues and challenges, many of which are neither foreseeable nor within the control of the OPW,” it said.

Examples of challenges included issues relating to ground conditions, timing of planning decisions and a lack of consultants for contract work.

“Therefore, it is not possible to provide a definitive list of projects that will be completed in seven years,” the OPW said.

“Nevertheless, the OPW strives at all times to accelerate and advance flood relief measures with minimal delay within the limits of the resources available to it.”

Around 16,000 properties are in planning stages, which are still at a very early stage; 7,000 are in more advanced systems.

But residents of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, say their plan has been delayed by 30 years. “I was elected as a city councilor in 1994 and we talked about it then and we’re still waiting,” said Jackser Owens, an independent councilor for the area, which suffered severe flooding in 2015 and 2021.

“Last Tuesday evening, people here sat in fear and watched the water rise.

“Every time they flood, everything in the house goes into the dumpster and everything is paid for out of pocket because they can’t get flood insurance.”

A design was drawn up before 2015, but was rejected locally, primarily due to its heavy reliance on concrete walls.

A revised plan incorporating glass barriers was accepted locally and it was hoped it would be completed by 2018.

That timetable shifted and then-Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath announced a halt in 2022, citing a lack of compliance with environmental regulations.

The plan still exists, but new environmental impact assessments need to be carried out.

The OPW has recently suggested it may be ready to submit a planning permit in 2025, but local people say that is still too far away.

“They live in fear,” Mr. Owens said. “I’ve carried sandbags to properties year after year and people can only handle so much.”

Flooding on Main St., Midelton, Co.Cork after the Owenacurra River burst its banks following heavy rain

Cork is the county with the greatest need for programs – 19 in total.

Six of these are in Stage 1 or Pre-Stage 1, four are in Stages 2-4 and nine are listed as future systems.

Donegal is next with 14 plans needed. There are six Level 1 systems, one Level 2 and four classified as future systems.

Two of these in Phase 1 are the Buncrana and Burnfoot projects, which were developed following massive damage from severe flooding in 2017.

Residents in one of the worst affected areas in Burnfoot have still not been able to return to their local authorities after six years.

Planning permission for the Burnfoot project was due to have been submitted last June, but the estimated timeline is now March or April next year.

Two further projects in Letterkenny and Donegal Town have been selected as pilots for a new approach to flood defense planning which the OPW hopes will speed up the process nationally.

Currently, area surveys and data collection for individual flood protection programs are contracted out to consultants, but there is a shortage of them.

Deputy Minister for Public Expenditure Reform Patrick O’Donovan is calling on the local authority to instead carry out the preparatory work for all vulnerable communities in the county so that they are then available for all flood defense measures. However, the model expected to emerge from this pilot is intended to accelerate future programs, not the current tranche.

Some projects have been delayed due to planning problems for environmental reasons.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said in recent days that greater public consensus was needed on flood infrastructure planning, particularly as climate change increased the amount and intensity of rainfall.

But flood experts have warned that the entire approach to flood relief needs to be reviewed as physical barriers may not be enough.

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said future aid programs may need to consider paid schemes for farmers and landowners to allow greater use of upstream land to soak up floods before they reach towns and villages.

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