The discovery that an antibiotic-resistant superbug can be attributed to the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea close to Galway is an alarming development that demands a prompt response. Untreated sewage is being discharged into the sea, rivers and lakes at 43 sites around Ireland, and apart from the damage to the environment is clearly a risk to public health.
The presence of the superbug enzyme on beaches close to Spiddal, Co Galway, had been detected by a team of researchers led by Prof Martin Cormican of NUI Galway. Although found in less developed countries, particularly in Asia, it is the first time the enzyme has been found in bathing seawater in Europe.
The enzyme, whose full name is New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, makes bacteria highly resistant to some of the last-line antibiotics available to hospitals.
Prof Cormican rightly pointed to the need for people to be prepared “to pay to clean up after ourselves”, whether through water charges or general taxation. For more than 150 years, he said, we have known that the key to preventing contamination by diseases such as typhoid and cholera was to prevent faecal matter entering the food chain. “We are still allowing sewage to flow into the sea and rivers because we have not organised ourselves to build the treatment systems we need.”
There is clearly a responsibility on central government, local authorities and other public bodies to ensure that the necessary investment in the modern infrastructure is made as quickly as possible to end the practice of untreated sewage entering the water system.
Is it enough?
Irish Water is committed to increasing its investment in waste-water infrastructure to an average of €326 million a year under its business plan for 2016-21, with new treatment plants scheduled to be in place by 2019, but it needs to examine whether this is enough to deal with the problem.
The public has a responsibility in all this. The long-running debate about water charges largely ignored the need for massive investment in waste water treatment and was instead dominated by political one-upmanship.