Looking through the papers in Ireland and watching the TV news in the past couple of weeks, you would think the entire country is under several feet of water.
It's true that we are going through the wettest winter in a long time and there is widespread flooding in the usual areas, mainly close to some rivers. But Ireland is not submerged, despite the impression given by the hyped up media coverage.
There's a reason why the papers and TV are as over-excited as a child at Christmas. There's not much else going on here at the moment, although the general election is now just six to eight weeks away.
So with all that media space to fill, the floods are a godsend to editors. Flooding always makes dramatic pictures and human interest stories, especially when there's not much else in the news. So for days now it's been the lead story.
To be fair, the TV pictures of water rushing down the main street of Graignamanagh, a beautiful little town in Co. Kilkenny on the banks of the Barrow river, were certainly dramatic, although the reporter should have pointed out that the water was just a few inches deep. After all the rain, a winter's supply in a couple of weeks, the river had burst its banks.
Similarly in other areas there were dramatic pictures, particularly along the Shannon basin and around other smaller rivers. There were pictures of isolated houses with walls of sandbags around them marooned in the middle of new lakes of flood water.
Pictures of exhausted and distraught residents manning pumps and complaining that their toilets were backing up and cooking was impossible. Pictures of farm animals stranded on small areas of higher ground, mournfully looking around for something to eat.
In a few rural areas, groups of farmhouses were cut off altogether and had to be reached by boat or tractor. On the outskirts of some towns along the Shannon, like Athlone, a few houses built on low lying ground had been inundated, with all the misery that brings, the sodden carpets and sofas, the kitchen fridges and cookers destroyed by several feet of dirty water. One apartment block in Athlone built on the bank of the Shannon had to be evacuated for a time when the electrical supply box was submerged.
For those unfortunate people caught up in the deluge, it is a nightmare that has now gone on for a few weeks. To give them a break in building their sandbag walls and manning the pumps, a few dozen troops were brought in so the residents could get some badly needed sleep.
A couple of government ministers visited the worst hit areas to voice support and offer promises of help. Even the President, who of course has no power to do anything, was out in rural Galway this week meeting people who had been flooded to express his deep concern and express his solidarity.
All of which made even more pictures in the papers. Looking at the coverage, you would think that half the houses in the country were under water.
The truth is, however, that the number of houses that have been flooded is around 250. That's 250 houses in the entire country.
So it's a long way off being a national disaster. We're not going to see Noah's Ark cruising across lakes of floodwater here anytime soon.
This is not to make light of the situation. It's a horror story for the victims of the flooding. But we need to keep it in proportion. In comparison with what has happened in some parts of the U.K. in recent weeks, we have actually got off lightly.
That said, it does raise some important issues that need to be faced up to here. One is personal responsibility.
Many of the affected residents interviewed on camera angrily demanded to know why nothing was done to prevent the floods, why the local council or the government had not taken action to solve the flooding problem in their area. This is normal these days when so many people immediately blame the government or local authorities whenever something goes wrong.
It's always someone else's fault. Personal responsibility never seems to come into the equation.
The fact is that rivers flood. If you live too close to them, in a house built on relatively low ground, you are taking a risk. It may be a risk that only becomes a reality every few decades, but it is a risk you have taken.
The mighty Shannon river which flows down through the center of Ireland has large flood plains that stretch for miles on either side in some areas. The whole eco-system and soil quality in these areas is a result of flooding that happens every decade or sometimes every few years. Living on a farm in these areas should mean accepting that flooding happens.
Yet when it does, farmers regard it as an unpredictable disaster and demand financial aid. For decades, politicians in the Shannon basin have garnered votes out of promising to dredge the Shannon and stop the flooding, even though they know it is not economically possible or environmentally desirable.
Another issue, as we all know, is global warming and its effect on climate here, meaning that in future we are going to have warmer and wetter winters. The only question is the degree to which this will happen and the timescale. It means that the traditional attitude of treating flooding in river flood plain areas as something that may happen once in a lifetime is no longer sustainable.
Many of the houses and lands that have flooded over this Christmas are the same ones that flooded during the last series of bad rain storms here in 2009. Yet residents and farmers are still surprised and are behaving as though it is something that cannot be foreseen. Climate change is going to mean an acceptance that some people may need to relocate and some lands near rivers will flood regularly.
That said, there is no doubt that we can better manage the consequences of flooding, particularly in the many towns and cities in Ireland that developed centuries ago around rivers. We can't move these towns, but we can protect them better.
This means spending a lot of money on reinforced concrete walls and embankments, culverts, channel deepening and widening, the replacement of low bridges and improvements to drainage systems. The government has earmarked €430 million to be spent on flood defenses over the next six years which is a big step-up on the €410 million invested over the past 20 years.
They have also been trying to get a handle on prioritizing what needs to be done and have identified 300 areas at potential significant flood risk around the country. Some of this work is already underway.
There has been considerable progress, with the towns of Fermoy, Kilkenny, Mallow, Clonmel and Ennis all getting new flood protection schemes, and works are also planned for Clonakilty and Skibbereen. A €45 million scheme is already underway to prevent flooding along the River Dargle in Bray, Co. Wicklow, an important dormitory town outside Dublin.
Some areas in the cities of Dublin, Limerick and Cork also need improvement. Cork is the worst with the Blackpool and Lower Lee areas of the city which were built on a flood plain regularly suffering from flooding, although they have escaped the worst of it this time. In Dublin, flood alleviation works along the Dodder and Tolka rivers are already underway.
Some of the house building that was done here during the boom was on known flood plains around some towns and cities and there are drainage problems in these estates as a result. Corruption in the political and planning process allowed this to happen, and with the present housing shortage we need to be careful we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Having said that, it's not true that these estates have been the main areas of concern this time. In fact many of the houses which have flooded this time are individual dwellings built years ago in places that were always going to be at some risk.
It's also not true that our rivers are not being looked after, to some degree at least. The Office of Public Works (the state agency responsible) has 88 excavators and spends €14 million a year on dredging works. And around Dublin Bay, sea walls are being strengthened and raised, although in some areas prone to flooding, like Clontarf, residents are objecting to the loss of views.
The problem with all this, of course, is that as soon as the weather improves and everywhere dries up as summer approaches, people -- including politicians -- tend to forget about flooding. Handling the problem better here will mean both facing up to reality in terms of what we can do and huge expense to get even that much done. And there always seems to be more urgent priorities.
As someone once said here, this would be a great little country if we could just put a roof over it!