Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

It's time to start planning how to weather the storms

The recent snowfall brought much of the province to a virtual standstill but that could be avoided in future with innovative new policies and initiatives, argues Robin Davey

Problems caused by one of the most snowbound springs on record are still fresh in our memories; now is the time to look at a number of questions.

We are all concerned for those who were snowed in without electricity and in particular the farmers and their livestock who have suffered devastating losses.

The question should now be asked what if the blizzard had covered the whole of Northern Ireland, or even the whole of Britain and Ireland?

The greater question is how we should meet the threats that we are facing due to climate change.

It is apparent that we are going through increasingly unpredictable climatic activity which many scientists are convinced is in part if not wholly man-made. Governments including our own are working to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Hopefully this will slow progress towards global warming and provide some security of energy supply.

A look back over the last decade indicates what we may expect over the next 10 years. In 2010, one of the coldest winters on record gave rise to the ravages of burst pipes and ruined homes. Fermanagh is getting increasingly used to finding its lakelands swamped and, in 2012, flooding overwhelmed the storm water drainage systems and sewers in parts of east and west Belfast, making houses uninhabitable for months.

In 2012, we had up to 40% of our households suffering from fuel poverty, a figure which is expected to rise in 2013.

We have tended to treat these extremes as freak events experienced once in a generation. It is now timely to ask if we are to experience these excesses almost annually, what steps should we be taking?

One answer is to look to countries that deal with these climates as a matter of course.

In Alpine towns and villages, roofs are designed and built to carry and shed heavy loads of snow and ice. Our architects and builders could learn from the principles used in these buildings. Incorporating them would incur relatively little additional cost.

Solar panel installers should ensure that the installations can withstand a load of compacted snow.

To cope with flooding on the Mississippi flood plain, house floor levels have to be raised at least 600mm above ground level. If we allow building in flood-prone areas, we should take similar precautions.

For houses built in areas prone to flooding, incentives to install flood responses such as flood boards for doorways and non-return valves on sewer outlets should be considered.

An initiative by government and household insurance companies could try to foresee problems and have responses ready.

Recent insulation of the homes of the less well-off has helped to prevent more households sinking in to fuel poverty.

The next step is to encourage more rapid replacement of traditional boilers with condensing boilers for domestic buildings. These must be installed with care as in very cold weather they are susceptible to their outlets freezing.

The renewable heat incentive, introduced by the Department for Trade and Enterprise, could provide more generous incentives to low-income homes and pensioners to install solar heating panels.

On a larger scale, Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland has taken a progressive step in including churches in community heating schemes. All these measures benefit both urban and rural communities and reduce our carbon footprint.

Increasingly accurate weather forecasts could include vital information to warn those who face isolation or loss of electricity supply on what steps they should take. Our rural communities have shown their resilience in the face of adversity. Combining this ingenuity with the weather forecasts and prepared action plans could greatly mitigate the losses suffered.

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