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Cork city floods – could this have been prevented?

More than 20,000 households, mainly on the working class Northside, have been left without a direct water supply for a week and will be without for at least 11 days.  Hundreds of homes and businesses have been wrecked by the flood.

How could this come to pass in the second city of what is still one of the 20 richest societies in the world? This cannot be merely explained as an “Act of God”.  In an age of climate change freak weather will become less unusual and cities and their inhabitants must be protected.

Questions need to be asked, not of the gods, but of the political establishment:

  • Why did the ESB not release rainwater from the Iniscarra Dam at an earlier point before the dam was full?
  • Why was Cork city’s emergency plan not capable of
  • protecting the city from such devastation?
  • Why were householders and businesses given little or no advance warning?
  • Why was the Lee Waterworks left unprotected from a flood?
  • Why did the quay walls crumble at Grenville Place beside the Mercy Hospital?
  • Why were the city’s water supplies not interconnected so that water could be
  • diverted from areas of the city with a continued water supply?  Why were the city’s water supplies not connected to those of the county so that water could be fed in to the city?

 

The capitalist establishment blew the Celtic Tiger boom and refused to use the boom years to create a strong education system, a strong health service and strong investment in addressing social needs.  Similarly, investment in flood defences, protection of quay walls, etc has clearly been deficient. “Back in 2004, the Report of the Flood policy Review Group was highly critical of the less than 20 million euro invested in flood planning and prevention for all of 2003.  The review group estimated that necessary flood relief works would require a 300 million euro investment….for 2005, flood relief works investment actually fell, to just 16 million, then 14 million by 2006.” (John Gibbons, Irish Times).

Serious questions need to be answered in relation to the Lee Waterworks. Why did it not have adequate flood defences? Last May the Environmental Protection Agency  issued a warning about the Lee Road pumping station and they said it was “at risk of failing unless it was urgently upgraded”, with EPA inspector Darragh Page expressing concerns about “the age and capacity of the plant”.

Any enquiry must be genuinely independent and not shy away from examining the responsibility of government in withholding investment. Equally, there must be no holding back on state investment to put in place the infrastructure to make sure that this does not happen again. With climate change will come increased rainfall. The floods in Cork and around the country give us a small glimpse of what the future holds. Now is the time that the government should be making the necessary infrastructural changes to deal with high levels of rainfall and for when so-called “freak” weather becoming a more common occurrence.

Coping with the aftermath – working class solidarity and public sector workers

Public sector workers were vilified in the media for taking strike action to defend jobs,
wages and conditions on 24 November. Yet in the days running up to the strike the value of the public sector workforce was shown starkly in Cork as the efforts of council workers, HSE staff, soldiers and gardai were all that stood between half a city and real distress.

 

Public sector staff worked around the clock to relieve the emergency. The highly-praised efforts of  Council staff would have been more effective again were it not for government cutbacks which reduced their number by more than 100 in the last year.

Community Development Projects, threatened with being washed away by a flood of a different character in the upcoming Budget, operated as a centre of operations for door to door distribution of water to the elderly.

The crisis also witnessed a high level of community spirit and solidarity with friends in areas with a water supply opening up their homes for friends in areas without water, people bringing back water supplies for elderly neighbours etc.

This response to the crisis was in sharp contrast to the actions of some businesses who saw the opportunity to make a fast buck.  In the first days of the crisis the local 96FM radio station received reports of shops hiking the price of water and plastic containers.  The sharp public reaction served to rein in this practice somewhat.

The political establishment will no doubt try to use the water crisis to push water charges up the political agenda.  “See”, they will say, “you never realised how valuable your water supply is, paying a price for it will have to be considered.”  The actions of the profiteers actually defeat this agenda.  Once water has a price capitalists will want to get their hands on it and make money.  Water charges will lead to the privatisation of the water supply.  If private enterprise had controlled the water supply during this crisis the people queueing at the water depots would have been turned away if their pockets weren’t deep enough!

Many householders are already down several hundred euro from having to buy plastic containers and bottled water and from having to forsake the washing machine for the launderette.  This could have been cut across had the Council adopted the proposal of the Socialist Party to provide containers to all householders free of charge and subsidise bottled water in the shops, if not on a 100% basis then at least on the basis of two for the price of one.

Many low income families that have been hit hardest financially by the crisis are the very same families the Government are hitting now with the withdrawal of the Christmas bonus.

Little wonder that when Brian Cowen came to town at the start of the week he spent his time with high officials in the City Hall rather than spending time on the ground with the communities affected.

The families and businesses whose homes and premises have been destroyed by flood damage must be fully compensated for their losses.  Legislation should be introduced to prevent insurance companies from refusing to insure them in future.
The money spent by the Council on emergency relief must be re-imbursed euro for euro and cent for cent by the government.  The relief effort must not be paid for by cutbacks from the Council’s Budget.

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