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Feidhlim Harty at his farm pond where he grows wetland plants and willows for waterway re-wilding and wetland projects. Photograph by John Kelly

Looking at climate change through the lens of water


Féidhlim Harty, director of an environmental consultancy company tells Bridget Ginnity, how being a bad windsurfer led him to specialising in reed bed system design and other eco-friendly sewage options.

For as long as I can remember, my family was interested in environmental things of various sorts, whether it was beach clean-ups, chemical or sewage pollution in Cork Harbour area.

My grandmother was Myrtle Allan of Ballymaloe House. When she was president of Euro-Toques, the global society of chefs, she had us children filling envelopes and addressing them to all corners of the globe.

We watched the early European legislation on food being developed and it was a real education that you can bring your opinions directly to the table and decisions will be made that reflects that input.

I set up my business in constructed wetlands as an activism measure in the ’90s. I wanted to clean up Cork Harbour using reed bed systems, mainly because I was a bad wind surfer and fell in a lot. Through the business, it has been easier to contribute to the national legislative conversation around wastewater and land use management.

Through the lens of water

The biggest thing that I’m learning recently is the benefit of looking at climate change through the lens of water. A lot of what we see as climate change is actually changes in the water dynamics within the landscape.

All over the world, we’ve drained land enthusiastically for building houses and for farmland. When it rains on a housing estate, the water lands on the roofs, and whizzes down the pipes towards the next constriction. So if that happens to be Ennis, you’re going to see flooding in the town.

On farmland, the thrust of European agricultural funding has been to actively encourage farmers to clear the land. When the wet fields, boggy corners and native woodland that act as the sponges are gone, water no longer hangs around in the land. Again, you get that rapid movement across the landscape, leading to flooding further downstream.

The corollary is that during dry weather, the resilience in the landscape is gone, and its capacity to hold on to water is reduced. Another contributor is the use of artificial nitrogen. It strips out the humus layer in the soil, so it doesn’t hold the same amount of water and nutrients and farm soil is washed out to sea.

A consequence if you remove water from the land, is that the land will warm up more. You get a greater differential between land and ocean temperatures that gives rise to greater wind movement, leading storm events. And it all come back to water management within the landscape itself.

Another aspect of water movement that has become known only in recent decades is that trees act as what’s called a biotic pump.

This is a cycle where rain blowing in from sea is soaked up by trees and then evaporated into the air. That air will move further inland and come down as rain. Any trees in that location soak up the water which is then evaporated, and the cycle continues.

Met Eireann predicts that the west of Ireland gets wetter and the east drier due to climate change. More trees on the west coast of Ireland could act as a biotic pump, keeping the rainfall relatively stable in the east coast, where there is good farming land.

So droughts, flooding and storms are much more severe due to land use changes rather than only climate change or erratic rainfall events.

What I find exciting about understanding the role of water is that we can reverse it really quickly and repair that damage over the course of years and even days. We can see tangible results to mitigate climate change in Ireland with very modest inputs on a local level.

I have no control over the fossil fuel industry but what I find so exciting in my work is I can influence one farmer and another farmer and then perhaps a county council. Slowly and in small steps we can change the way we manage our land. And I find that hugely encouraging.

Keep it in the ground

We really need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, urgently and permanently.

One way is to stop subsidising fossil fuels. We subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of over $5 trillion per year. It’s insane to be actively spending taxpayers money to support the industry that’s causing the problem.

Another approach proposed by the Irish international think tank, Feasta, is Cap and Share. The start point is that you cap use of fossil fuel by an agreed, reducing amount year on year.

The second element is that the corporations that extract fossil fuels pay for extraction permits, and you share the money raised from this with everybody, not just the people with the mineral rights.

Another relatively easy change is to charge road tax and car insurance at the petrol pump. In that way, if you leave your car sitting in the driveway all year long, it doesn’t cost you a penny.

At the moment, a lot of your motoring expense is incurred before you even get behind the wheel whereas the public transport price includes everything, so it can’t compete. Also, we could operate a free public transport at only a fraction of what we pay on roads every year.

The Hare’s Corner

I’m also involved in changing land management through the Burrenbeo Hare’s Corner project. There’s three strands in the project where landowners can get funding – a small native woodland corner, an orchard and the pond.

I’m the pond adviser and go around from farm to farm, looking at the areas that are most suitable for ponds, and advising how to create them.

The orchard work is great, they plant eight or 12 apple trees from the Irish Seed Savers Association. For the native woodland, Bernard Carey supplies Burren Scots pine, a strain that is indigenous to Ireland and that was only identified recently.

It’s a great joy to be part of the Hare’s Corner process and there’s been strong uptake from landowners. We put in a pond on our own land as part of the project and by the time the digger left the site, the farm drain the pond was built within had greater resilience against flooding and droughts.

Green and Black

For me, carbon emissions from the coal, oil and gas industry is very much what’s in my mind around climate, sometimes called black carbon.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels but there’s actually so many other reasons to diversify our energy supplies, you don’t even need carbon emissions as an excuse. There’s the habitat destruction of the oil industry, there’s the indigenous rights issue right around the world and there’s the war issue.

Many recent wars and forced regime changes have been related to access to cheap energy.

There’s also air pollution with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and so on. And gas doesn’t come out as a clean fuel at all. The fracking industry is phenomenal in terms of carbon emissions and also in terms of using water resources.

I find the focus on green carbon emissions from agriculture a bit of a red herring although some ways in which we farm at the moment are daft. Rearing cattle intensively on soya meal that comes from the Amazon Basin is, of course, a climate change issue.

I think that the link between animals and climate change isn’t a straightforward one within sustainable farming whereas the link between industrial agriculture and climate change is crystal clear and urgently needs to be addressed.

Extinction

I find the prospect of species extinction to be far more worrying than climate change. In the web of life, how many strands can you cut before you fall through? And each strand that you cut is a beautiful species in its own right. Climate change is one of the factors within species extinction but there are so many other reasons as well.

We can build climate resilience by protecting the habitats that already exist; by restoring the habitats that are borderline in terms of viability; and by recreating the ones that have been lost. This increases climate sequestration potential, so that more carbon is taken out of the atmosphere. It also improves water dynamics with less flooding and drought.

Vast swathes of bog in the Midlands were dug up and burned in the past and the habitats that go with them destroyed. It’s really exciting to watch the work Bord na Mona is doing on peatland restoration as peat is being phased out as a fuel. There’s a lot of potential for building carbon in those bogs again.

Habitat protection needs to be done in the context that we also need to grow our food to survive and thrive. We can’t rewild all the west of Ireland, and outsource agriculture to the Amazon Basin, that simply doesn’t stack up either.

So many things are interlinked, but I believe that if you protect habitats completely, most fossil fuel extraction will stop.

The simple life

Whenever you spend money there are two budgets. There’s the financial budget, and then there’s the resource budget, in terms of carbon or water. A good question to ask is “What will nurture us and take care of us in the world?”.

In my family, we try to live a life of voluntary simplicity. This is doing less rather than more. It involves fixing stuff, growing your own food, things like that.

During lockdown, we saw how nature had space to breathe, because we just didn’t have this relentless process of doing. I find it hugely encouraging that people are now looking at the link between our comforts and what goes into getting them to our home.

People are becoming disenchanted with the lure of stuff, and are seeing the trail of destruction that our consumer lifestyle leaves. For example the link between fast fashion and ecological destruction, modern slave labor, and fossil fuel use is becoming much clearer.

In our global society we’ve got goods and services coming in from all over the world subsidised by people with little or no money. Trade agreements protect the large industries, very often at a huge cost for local communities and for local environment.

When we want a treat of avocados, oranges or whatever at home, we buy them from a European organic producer through www.crowdfarming.com. Even though it comes from, say, the south of Spain, that’s better than coming from Argentina in terms of food miles.

Buying locally and from suppliers like this is also part of the community networking that is important. It’s important to forge links with people of like mind, basically holding hands within the community, whether that’s local, national or European level.

Home eco-renovation

We’ve just moved house from Ennis to an old cottage in west Clare. We’ve been renovating along those principles of spending wisely, focusing on simplicity and linking with suppliers who care about the environment.

Midwest Lime from Sixmilebridge are doing the replastering inside and outside. They use a clay, cork and lime mix that is a breathable plaster that also has insulation. This avoids the chemicals and carbon footprint of alternatives like polystyrene and rockwool.

A lot of our timber downstairs was rotten from woodworm. We’ve taken out the old floors and put cellulose insulation made by Ecocel in Cork from recycled newspapers under the new floor. We’ll probably do the same for the roof. We’ve used CosyWool sheep’s wool insulation from Ecological Building Systems in other parts of the house.

PVC windows were in place already. We looked at them long and hard as we wouldn’t have chosen them aesthetically. Although PVC is incredibly toxic in manufacture and as waste, they are relatively inert when in use. So the most ecological thing to do is to leave them where they are.

I’m looking out those windows at the valley between Ennistymon and Lahinch and that view recharges me.

A vision for the future

Personally I think it’s important to hold a really strong, positive vision for the future that we want to move into. Holding the vision enables you to maintain enthusiasm. Talk that everything is hopeless is potentially self-defeating and depressing.

It’s also important to advocate for that vision, whether that is giving feedback to suppliers on packaging or making submissions to public consultations. There’s so much positive stuff happening now. There are more environmental organisations around the world and more people engaged than in any past historical movement.

A challenge is that the industries that are causing so much of the problem are so big and so powerful.

I also think that these big companies have a huge role to play because they’re really good at organising and getting things done. The people in those industries are often trying to do the best for their family and the people around them. They also have futures that they’re looking towards.

Often though, when you’re in your job, whether it’s the CEO of Monsanto, or a farmer, it can be hard to find a way to shift the business model.

We need to rein in the profit motive as the only deciding factor. We also need to decouple GDP as the method of measuring a nation’s health. It takes a lot of initiative to shift the direction of that ship that’s rolling along. But I really believe that the direction is changing course.

It’s a known phenomenon that the power of thought influences the outcome. And maybe that’s what we’re seeing all over the world, as we see so many of the positive changes that are already unfolding.

I think miracles happen all the time. Talk to anybody who has had a spontaneous remission from a terminal disease, which is the medical term for miracle.

“We have a terminal diagnosis for the planet, but I hold a strong, clear, positive vision of an outcome where everything is fixed – the environment, society, human rights, animal rights – and where we have peace. That’s the miracle I believe in.

About Bridget Ginnity

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