Fighting the rising tides

Cork city struggles to keep its head above water

Proposed location for the tidal barrier, Save Cork City

Cork city has experienced regular and violent flooding for many years. The southern city is built on gravel and sand, and works like a big sponge. It sits on islands and marsh, right where the river Lee meets the ocean. During storm surges, heavy rainfall, and high tides, the groundwater beneath the city rises resulting in massive and destructive flooding. The floods of 2009 remain in everyone’s memory, when a state of emergency was declared in the city and people in kayaks roamed the streets. I remember the flash floods of 2014, which paradoxically resulted in water shortages across the city. The boys in school ran the taps and flushed the toilets until the water tank ran empty and we all got to go home. Much riverside real estate is left desolate, either due to flood damage or extremely high insurance premiums. As human induced global warming has raised sea levels in the last decade, Cork has found itself with wet feet more and more often. Irish sea levels have risen by 30 centimetres in a century, and depending on the adaptive response to climate change, could rise another metre by 2100. Flooding in the city has been reported every single year since 2014.

The Office of Public Works (OPW), the state body which directs flood risk management in Ireland, has commissioned a flood wall scheme for Cork, in an attempt to prevent the river from bursting its banks. The scheme would be the largest of its kind in the history of Ireland. However, engineering concrete walls in the city centre has been criticised as being too simple a solution to Cork’s flooding – one reason being because it does not address the rising sea level driven by global warming.

The OPW has received more than 1,000 submissions on the scheme. A local grassroots organization “Save Cork City” has risen up in protest of the walls scheme, and has even gone so far as to propose an alternative flood plan. Their alternative proposal “Potential Cork” focuses on the issue of the rising tides and would see the construction of a tidal barrier, as well as the use of existing reservoirs, costing approximately €140 million. This is slightly cheaper than the walls proposal, which is to cost around €160 million. A tidal barrier would be built downstream, with a gate that can be closed against tidal surges. Save Cork City claim that this will cause no disturbance to the existing river landscape, and will move flooding adaptation out of the city. This would also protect the greater Cork area and suburbs.

Despite the alternative proposal having been written by qualified engineers, the legitimacy of the plan has been called into question by critics. This conflict raises an interesting question of the role that citizens have to play in adapting to climate change. It seems that the public has limited access to the decision-making processes surrounding climate change. Engineered solutions to climate change are only appraised as valid if they originate from “official” sources, such as contracted business, or government departments. The desire of the Irish people to resist climate change was only first heard by the government last year, in the citizens assembly. This lack of access may be the reason why Ireland is ranked as Europe’s worst-performing country for taking action on climate change.

In recent history, the Irish media has had a reluctance or disinclination to associate violent weather events as being associated with climate change. Rain is normal in Ireland, after all. However this attitude has had to change. We have been forced to recognise that we are not invulnerable to climate change, especially in the wake of Storm Ophelia. The tropical storm, which reached Ireland and raged for a day in October 2017, left hundreds of people in Cork without electricity, and resulted in three deaths across the country. It was the strongest east Atlantic hurricane in 150 years. It was the tenth Atlantic hurricane in ten weeks. The violence and frequency of these storms is directly related to a warmer world. Higher temperatures mean more water in the atmosphere, and heavier storms as a result. Irish media has now been shaken awake to this fact.

The Cork City Council has voted on the OPW’s scheme, and is now analysing the plan. The Council has called for the scheme to be peer-reviewed following confirmation that work is due to start this summer.

Tacking on a few extra centimetres of river wall may be a short term solution, but it will not be enough to fight the rising tides of climate change in Cork. The knowledge and insight of  communities affected by climate change must be respected and taken into consideration if we are to adapt to a changing world. This is not a case of “not in my back yard”. Communities are not trying to displace the cost of climate change. They are actively producing solutions and have a genuinely deep and extensive knowledge of their area. We cannot ignore these voices when we discuss the solutions to climate change.