On a chilly recent Wednesday, about midday, a few runners and dog walkers are out along the footpath next to the sea wall just south of Sean Moore Park.
It’s around high tide, and though the sea is comfortably below the top edge of the wall, as bigger waves smack against the barrier, they send cold spray over and onto the footpath.
Safely out of reach of these splashes, on the other side of the road, Mary Kelly and a friend are walking along the dry footpath. She is bundled up against the wind, and wearing a warm purple hat.
She is aware of a plan for a cycle path along this route, and has views on how that should be done, she says. But she hasn’t been following another plan – to enhance the flood defences along Sandymount’s seafront.
“I don’t like to see the wall raised, but maybe it’s necessary,” she says. It’d be best to extend the promenade north, run the cycle path along that, and put any necessary sea wall on top too, she said.
Happily for Kelly, that is one of the options on the table. Eventually.
In September 2021, senior council engineer Gerard O’Connell presented local councillors with plans for raising the sea wall along the existing promenade (phase 1) and maybe extending the promenade – with sea wall – north to Sean Moore Park (phase 2).
At the time, O’Connell said he expected work to start on phase 1 before the end of 2021, and for the council to run a public consultation on how to do phase 2 in the autumn of 2022.
But neither has happened, and a new timeline the council has laid out suggests it could be years yet before construction begins.
While some locals, like Kelly, haven’t noticed these delays, others are frustrated, and worried.
The council told people living in this flood-prone area that the flood defences needed to be enhanced, said David Turner, chair of the Sandymount and Merrion Residents Association, last Wednesday morning. But they haven’t done it.
“People are nervous,” Turner said. Moving the project forward is the association’s number one priority now, he said. “If you continue working on the design forever and never get started, the risk just increases.”
There’s also the issue of flood insurance, says Niall McElroy, a member of the association’s committee. Some area residents can’t get it for their homes now, but if the wall gets built, they could go back to their insurers with a better case, he says.
Flooding, Climate Change, Defences
Much of Sandymount, built on land reclaimed from the sea over the past 200 years, is at risk from flooding, according to the city development plan for 2022–28 and its Strategic Flood Risk Assessment.
There was major tidal flooding in 2002. That prompted the addition of flood defences, according to the Office of Public Works (OPW), the state body that takes the lead on flood mapping and coastal flood defence.
“Before 2002 we were not aware that Dublin City was at significant tidal flooding risk,” a Dublin City Council spokesperson said.
When another very high tide hit in 2014, “we were prepared”, with the new defences, they said.
Although 2002 and 2014 were the two highest ever recorded tides for Dublin, the new permanent flood defences, supplemented with some emergency temporary ones, made a big difference in 2014, the council spokesperson said.
Together, they “reduced flooding from over 1,000 buildings in 2002 to one building and one garage in 2014 in the Sandymount/Ringsend area”, they said.
These additional, temporary defences are still kept on hand and sometimes added on top of the permanent ones, a Dublin City Council press office spokesperson said.
“Currently following high tide warnings, temporary flood alleviation measures are put in place to reduce flood risk in the Sandymount area in addition to the existing permanent measures at Merrion Gates and opposite Marine Drive,” they said.
The council has only had to do that once over the last two years, “as a largely precautionary exercise”, a council spokesperson said. “These measures are only required to combat the highest tides and particularly those with significant wave action.”
As the climate changes, Dublin is likely to be at increasing risk of flooding from greater rainfall, rivers more prone to burst their banks, and rising sea levels, Conor Murphy, a Maynooth University professor, who sits on the national Climate Change Advisory Council’s Adaptation Committee, has said.
The council’s most recent Strategic Flood Risk Assessment classified Sandymount’s “sensitivity to climate change” as “Extreme, due to the proximity to the sea and varying level of the flood defences and the very low level of buildings inland of existing flood defences”.
“As sea level rise continues the risk does go up,” a council spokesperson said.
So the council has had a plan: improve the permanent flood defences along Sandymount’s shore. O’Connell, the council engineer, has been talking about this at least as far back as 2016.
In February 2021, in response to a question from Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond, Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan said the council was finalising a scheme design for Sandymount flood defence works, “with the current proposed scheme cost estimates at approximately €1.6 million for Phase 1, and €17.3 million for Phase 2”.
At the September 2021 South East Area Committee meeting, O’Connell, the council engineer, detailed a plan to raise the existing 1.1km of wall along the promenade by about 36cm. The start of construction on this southern segment, phase 1, was imminent, he said.
There were several options for what to do to better protect the section of the Sandymount seashore from Gilford Avenue, about where the promenade ends, north to Sea Moore Park, about 700m (phase 2).
These included building a slightly taller wall, perhaps with a tumble of rocks on the sea side for extra protection – or building a promenade with a wall on top. There was going to be a public consultation in autumn 2022, O’Connell said, to help choose the design.
Neither of those things has happened yet though. Something changed, it seems, because that time line got derailed.
Now the council is working through the bureaucracy of appointing a “multi-disciplinary consultant team”, according to a council press office spokesperson.
The council has sent draft documents for procurement of the consultant team for the project to the OPW for approval, the council spokesperson said.
The OPW has the documents and has sought further clarifications from the council. “Subject to receipt of clarifications from DCC, the OPW will progress the approval processes in 2023,” an OPW spokesperson said.
The council hopes to start the procurement process for the consultants in April of this year, the council spokesperson said. Once the design team is appointed, the design work for the enhanced flood defences should take about 18 months, they said.
Phase 1 already has planning approval, but phase 2 will then need to go for planning approval, they said.
“Subject to satisfactory design checks on Phase 1 of the scheme (the Promenade Section) … it is anticipated that this Phase will go to construction in advance of Phase 2,” the spokesperson said.
Why has all this been delayed, knocked off the timeline laid out by O’Connell in September 2021? They got new information, the council spokesperson said.
“Recent modelling of the local wave climate in 2022 using new topographical and sea level data produced higher design waves than previous,” they said. Also, “New climate change guidelines and safety margins for coastal flood defences require new calculations of local flood risk.”
Turner, of the residents association, seems impatient with this explanation – especially when it comes to phase 1 of the project, which already has planning permission.
“You can always raise the wall more in the future if you need to. Why not start [building it] now?” he asks, sitting on a couch in the Sandymount Hotel last Wednesday.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, over the phone, said similar on Monday 6 March. “To me there seems to be no urgency whatsoever,” he said.
“While they are all twiddling their academic thumbs” looking at new wave modelling, “we could get on with raising the wall and extending the promenade”, Lacey said.
There’s one additional aspect to consider, though, says Turner. Enhancing the flood defences isn’t the only project that’s planned along the Sandymount seashore, he says.
There’s also the proposed cycleway, which has been tied up in court. And sewerage works, needed to keep waste from flowing out and polluting the bay, Turner says.
The best thing to do would be to create a task force including the OPW, Dublin City Council, the National Transport Authority, and Irish Water, Turner says. If they coordinate, they can design and carry out all the works in an integrated way, he says.
“If all these things are done sequentially that will condemn the area to a series of continuous building works,” Turner says.