Coastal erosion in Ireland: a perspective on past and present management
06 June 2017
Lahinch, Co Clare, during a storm in February 2014
This article outlines Ireland’s history of engagement with the coast in relation to erosion and proposes a methodology for moving forward such that we are ready to address the various challenges that were described in a previous article.
In contrast to most other European countries who are very proactive in terms of their approach to coastal erosion and management, Ireland’s response is very much reactive. Given that large sections of the coastline are unpopulated, it is sensible to limit protection works to priority areas, which in general has been the response.
With average annual erosion rates varying between 0.2m -2m, it has been estimated that up to 200 hectares are being lost every year. All predictions suggest that erosion rates will increase so at some point in the future we will need to change our approach in terms of managing. What is proposed in this paper are generally low-cost actions that we can start taking now to increase our level of preparedness to future threats.
Historically, coastal erosion in Ireland has been managed in an ad-hoc localised manner with very little central co-ordination. The earliest documented national study was by the Royal Commission in 1911, which set out the extent and causes of erosion. There is nothing further to report for nearly 80 years, when the severe storms of 1989/90 caused extensive damage and mobilised local authorities to form the National Coastal Erosion Committee.
A report was published in 1992, which set out Ireland’s coastal landforms and determined that 1,500km of coastline to be at risk of erosion, with 490km requiring urgent intervention. In terms of costings for such coastal protection works, it was estimated at that time to range between approximately €0.75 million to €6 million per kilometre, depending on the measures required.
Therefore, to protect all 490km of coastline would have cost a minimum of €367 million which, even today, would be totally unfeasible proposition. Given that it is a quarter of a century since this report was published and very little has been done in terms of protecting these 490km, it shows that a different prioritisation procedure is required to pinpoint critical erosion areas.
On the basis of the findings of the National Coastal Erosion Committee, various government departments commissioned a ‘Coastal Zone Strategy’ study, which was undertaken by Brady Shipman and Martin and completed in 1997. This study produced the basis of a management plan for Ireland (Coastal Zone Management: A Draft Policy for Ireland), in which coastal erosion was one element.
It suggested that Ireland should be divided into 13 coastal cells, which are self-contained sediment catchments, and management plans should be prepared for each one of these cells. The report highlighted our lack of knowledge of our coastal zone and stated the importance of monitoring, data collection and research to aid future decision making.
Almost in parallel with this work, the then Department of Marine and Natural Resources and Enterprise Ireland (then Forbairt) produced the document ‘ECOPRO – Environmentally Friendly Coastal Protection – Code of Practice’ in 1996. Even today, this is still a valuable reference document as it outlines the basic processes than shape the Irish coastline, provides Irish case studies and gives useful methodologies for assessing coastal erosion.
Coastal erosion remained on the agenda into the next decade with the National Development Plan (2000-2006) allocating almost €45 million to dealing with this issue by adopting environmentally friendly approaches where appropriate. About €38 million was allocated to coastal protection projects around the country with the remainder earmarked for research purposes. The research funding aspect was unprecedented for Ireland, but my understanding is that the funding was used to fill knowledge gaps rather than to undertake fundamental or applied research.
In May 2001, the Spatial Planning Unit of the Department of Environment and Local Government published a report entitled Coastal Zone Management, in which they summarised much of the previous work in relation to coastal erosion and protection but also recognised the then impending threat of sea level rise. It also examined various land-use characteristics, such as tourism and aquaculture, and concluded on the urgent need for an Irish Coastal Zone Management Policy and the need for it to guide local authority activities.
Ireland participated in the EU-funded EUROSION project (Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe), which was completed in 2004. EUROSION was “based on the assumption that coastal erosion is a phenomenon that can never be completely controlled but can be managed in an economically and ecologically sustainable fashion”. The pertinent lessons learnt identified from this project include:
- Increased human activity in the coast zone is contributing to erosion in parallel with natural induced factors Human induced erosion arises from such factors as dredging, land reclamation, vegetation clearing, coastal artificalisation (breakwaters, coastal defences, etc) mining, river damming and climate change due to carbon emissions.
- Coastal erosion is normally managed on a local basis and non-local forcing factors can sometimes be ignored which can result in the coastal defences having an overall negative impact.
- To address non local factors in relation to coastal erosion many countries have developed coastal erosion management strategies based on the ‘coastal sediment cell’ approach as was already outlined. This was considered a major breakthrough, as it enabled studies to be undertaken across local and national boundaries.
- There are no miracle solutions to coastal erosion and any method implemented should have very clear objectives. In addition multi functional technical solutions (i.e. sand nourishment) have a better acceptance level from local communities.
- Adequate monitoring programmes are required but in general are the exception in Europe rather than the rule.
The main focus on a national basis since 2003 has been on the production of the Irish Coastal Protection Strategy Study (ICPSS). This national study took ten years to complete and involved detailed numerical modelling, data collection and analysis which enabled mapping of flood risk and erosion. The erosion mapping is purely based on historical trends so has a high level of uncertainty associated with it.
As discussed in a previous article, it does not provide guidance as to a national strategy and leaves it to local authorities and other stakeholders to use information as they see fit. The main benefit of the ICPSS is that it provides information where previously there has been none but does not point to a national strategy in terms of coastal protection.
Present management of our coastline
In this section, the roles of the principle agencies that manage coastal erosion in Ireland are discussed.
- Role of Office of Public Works (OPW)
The OPW is the responsible government agency for both coastal erosion and flood-risk management and see these combined functions as being linked in many coastline situations (i.e. erosion of dune resulting in increased flood risk).
A number of coastal defence works with the function of flood prevention have been identified through the CFRAMS (Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management) programme and will be implemented. Regarding coastal erosion, the OPW prioritises based on risks to public safety and public infrastructure and works are undertaken according to the provisions of the Coastal Protection Act 1963. This provides the mechanism for local authorities to apply to the OPW for funding. On receipt of applications, the OPW assesses their priority and where appropriate will fund detailed design studies in order to determine the best intervention to apply. On completion of the design study, a decision is made on whether capital funding will be provided.
In 2009, the OPW introduced ‘The Minor Flood Mitigation Works and Coastal Protection Scheme’ to provide up to 90% funding, for projects with total costs less than €500,000, to local authorities for both flood mitigation and coastal-protection works.
Whilst significant funding levels are not allocated for coastal protection in Ireland, the OPW has been able to fund a number of coastal protection and defence repair schemes. Currently they are satisfied with the current policy and approach in relation to coastal erosion risk management, although this is being kept under ongoing review and may be updated as deemed necessary in the future.
In terms of a national strategy (in relation to coastal erosion), the OPW considers that this has already been undertaken in the form of the Irish Coastal Protection Strategy Study. It is considered that extreme events, such as the storms of 2013/14, will naturally identify the areas which are most at risk and they then can be dealt with in the usual manner.
- Role of local authorities
Local authorities are at the coal face of coastal erosion in Ireland and their responsibilities include: coastal maintenance and emergency works, identifying critical areas, applying for OPW funding and managing coastal-protection schemes. It seems that managing erosion is undertaken slightly differently in each of the 19 local authorities, depending perhaps on the level of importance given to this issue.
Some counties have a dedicated engineer or planner dealing with coastal works, whilst for others it forms part of the remit of two or more engineers. What is certain is that coastal erosion is becoming more of a core issue in local authorities, perhaps with the realisation of the increasing threat that it poses to the public and to critical infrastructure. It is known that they are, through the County and City Managers Association and Local Government Management Agency, working towards a more unified approach in terms of the management of coastal erosion.
Other agencies and departments relevant to coastal erosion include the National Monuments Service, the National Parks & Wildlife Service, the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.
In part two of this article, Dr Jimmy Murphy will propose actions to better protect our coastline that can be incorporated within the present framework, bearing in mind that large budgets are not available for studies, protection works and research.
Dr Murphy has over 20 years’ experience working on consultancy and research projects related to coastal engineering and marine renewable energy. This work primarily involves examining the impact of engineering works on the physical marine environment through the use of field measurements, numerical modelling and physical modelling techniques. He has undertaken projects at many locations around Ireland in relation to coastal erosion and the construction of new piers/harbours and marinas. He also lectures in the School of Engineering at UCC on the subjects of environmental hydrodynamics and harbour and coastal engineering. He has a number of publications in the areas of coastal engineering and renewable energy.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2017/06/06/coastal-erosion-in-ireland-a-perspective-on-past-present-and-future-management/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Lahinch.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Lahinch-300x300.pngCivillocal authorities,marine,OPW,UCC