Sunday 10 August 2008

Ireland is falling into the sea

Coastal erosion will have dire consequences for the country unless measures are taken to stop it. But so far, funding has not been forthcoming and authorities are ignoring the problem. Jennifer Bray reports

Scattered sandbags, a half a road and a beach consisting of a small sandy gap between the sea and a cliff – welcome to the tourist town that is slowly falling into the ocean. Wexford's Clones/ Kilpatrick beach may once have been renowned for its vast expanses of sandy shore, but these days it is defined by the speed with which it is losing roads and houses to the sea. On a bank holiday weekend, there are three people making use of the now small beach area, a far cry from the packed coastlines that could be seen as recently as six years ago.

Perched on the edge of a cliff, a few metres above sea level, live Paddy and Keyna McAvoy, who point out another house a few metres down the beach, unprotected and a little too close to the sea to be a desirable holiday home anymore. In a storm or at high tide these houses would clearly br prone to flooded gardens. "I remember many times I've looked across to sea water lapping up to the front door of the houses," Paddy McEvoy said.

The problem is set to get worse, according to a range of reports on coastal erosion which have warned of the potentially deadly effects of climate change. Unless vastly more money is spent on combating the problem than is currently the case, the country is facing, amongst other catastrophes, 10 times as many major flooding incidents, the collapse of many sewage systems and a major threat to tourism income. Our whole coastline could be transformed.

Sea invasion

Earlier this year, the government ann­ounced it would fund work on 21 projects designed to combat the problem of coastal erosion around the country.

Last year alone, Kerry County Council spent €4m making sure the road at Inch Strand didn't fall into the sea. Laytown Golf Club in Co Meath gets a little smaller every year as the sea smashes against its sandy boundary and takes some of it away. The National Trust in Northern Ireland announced earlier this year that the Giant's Causeway was under threat from coastal erosion. Forty percent of Wexford's coastline is at risk, having been eroded inwards by around 100m in the last 30 years.

Kilpatrick beach in Castletown, north Co Wexford, where Paddy and Keyna McEvoy have lived since the early 1990s, is one of the worst affected areas. "We've certainly seen some changes around here, particularly in the proximity of the sea," said McEvoy.

A short distance up the fragmented coastal path sits the house of Harry Crosbie, one of Ireland's leading property developers. Crosbie was the subject of a recent controversy when it was decided the protective measures he had erected at the front of his beachfront home were in breach of planning regulations.

Local Fine Gael TD Michael D'Arcy blames a severe lack of funding for the worsening state of the county's coasts. "The situation is having an effect on our tourism in Wexford, but the county council has point blank refused us the resources to protect our shores," he said. "If you get a map from 50 years ago and compare it to today, you'll see how much land we've lost- and we're talking hundreds of metres. We need a lot more to solve this than what we've got."

Around 170km of Galway's coast is believed to be at risk of erosion and damage. In Oranmore, according to local resident Kieran Stevens, a popular tourist attraction is now under threat as protective walls crumble in to the sea. Ardfry House – which is next to an area that has been eroded to a "high degree" – was built in the 1770s on a peninsula jutting into Galway Bay. It was the filming location of 1970s film The MacKintosh Man which starred Paul Newman.

"This is a threat to tourism here, and also a danger to those who come down here to visit," Stevens said. "Even the walls built in the 1800s are slowly falling away, and the council's response is simple: no funding. The longer we leave it here in Galway, the worse it gets and the more expensive also," he added. Galway senator Fidelma Healy Rae adds: "We had the Vikings, the English and now the sea – but this time we're doing nothing about it."

Houses at risk

In Sutton, Co Dublin, Jim Fitzpatrick, a local in the Barrow Beach area for 25 years, has been lobbying the local council for over a decade after watching the sea approach his garden in an ever more menacing fashion. "My efforts have been to no avail," said Fitzpatrick. "There's nothing to stop the sea from coming into my back garden, which it does.

"The council put up wooden stockpoles before, and if they had of stuck around long enough to see if they worked or not they would see that there is now a gap of over 20 foot behind them rendering them useless. I am not looking for something here for some kind of elite group – this beach belongs to everyone and is one of the best-known and most popular northside beaches."

According to Fitzpatrick, it is the 'elite group' who are the first to earn the much-coveted environmental protection. "There's been expensive work done on the likes of the Portmarnock beaches – and the reason for that is because of the golf course. They've done amazing things with those beaches, involving boulders which make them completely erosion-proof. They have spent in the region of millions on that. But as far as normal residents go, there is nothing in the way of action or protection."

Green Party councillor David Healy claims securing the necessary funding required for protective measures is an increasingly difficult task. "Fingal County Council this year sought for money from the Department of Agriculture but they didn't get enough to start the work they planned. The shifting currents and increasing erosion of these beaches are going to impact on all families along these coasts when their houses are put at a new risk of flooding," he said.

Sutton is one of many at-risk areas in Dublin. Sandymount and the area around the IFSC on the north quays have continued to struggle with the effects of coastal erosion, with environmental scientist Rowan Fealy, from the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units (Icarus) at Maynooth University, predicting a worse time ahead for these areas.

"Events like those severe floodings in Sandymount are likely to become more of a common thing as a direct consequence of erosion," says Fealy.

"The major weather events that are usually estimated to happen around once every hundred years in Ireland are likely to shift to one in every 10 years now."

Emissions mission

Another environmental scientist, Damian Nolan, maintains that erosion will trigger more serious consequences for Ireland, and even its islands.

"Aside from the financial impact of losing economically valuable land, there are huge risks that we will lose Bull Island when coastal sedimentation patterns change. The future for the island might be very bleak indeed which would leave the whole northern coast exposed to the influence of the sea."

Nolan also points to the effects on more unsuspecting areas – like sewerage. "Some work was done by the engineers' academy on the fact that our sewage treatment plant is very near sea level and we are putting more and more waste treatment at this level, opening the risk of salt-water infiltration and physical damage.

"Sewage treatment works in non-saline water. Salt water would disturb the microbiological ecosystem that sewage treatment plants rely on, thus rendering it useless."

According to Rowan Fealy, Ireland's CO2 emissions are causing these problems on our coast. "Without a doubt, coastal erosion is a big challenge for Ireland for the future, but we really need to look at the root cause of this problem: our emissions. Rather than consistently putting in stop-gap measures we should try to beat it at the root."

The predicted 1-2mm rise in sea levels, an "overall increase of 10-20%", would trigger further coastal erosion, he says.

Ireland's National Development Plan (NDP) makes a small provision for this contentious environmental issue, detailing measures "to address urgent coastal erosion problems and thereby preserve state-owned property, tourist amenities, natural habitats/ecology and private property.

"Approved projects will be undertaken by the coastal authorities concerned, or directly by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources."

Professor Andrew Cooper, head of the coastal research group in the University of Ulster, believes there are a number of measures that can be taken against coastal erosion.

"One is to build walls to protect the dry land. However, these often destroy the beach by cutting it off from the sand supply it needs to survive, or by cutting it off from the dunes that absorb storm energy.

"The second is to put extra sand or gravel on the beach and this is called beach nourishment. This tries to replace sand that is lost by erosion and protects the land behind it."

According to Cooper, this can be effective, but is a "neverending commitment that will cost money".

The third option Cooper suggests is to move the buildings at risk or let them fall in to the sea, a process he calls "managed retreat".

"This lets natural processes continue to operate and maintains the coast's natural resilience. It is the most sustainable approach to managing coastal erosion."

Sunday Tribune

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