Down the drain: what's going wrong with Ireland's water supply?


Shortages are threatening our future. In the first of a three-part series, KATHY SHERIDANtalks to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan about plans for a national water authority and visits Co Tipperary, where plans to provide Shannon water to Dublin are causing tension

WHEN A MONTH’S rain pounds the Dublin region in a few hours, it can be difficult to get excited about water shortages. For this writer, a 20-minute journey home from a meeting in west Dublin last week becomes a two-hour tussle with closed roads and a dead car battery. The meeting is with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. The subject, piquantly, is water.

Even with a rainstorm battering the windows and roads closing around us, there is no mistaking his sense of mission, and there are certainly no jokes about the irony of the situation. The “single biggest issue” facing his department, “or any department, for that matter”, he says, is good-quality water in sufficient quantities. And it’s not just about meeting household requirements; it’s also about jobs and those much-coveted foreign direct investors who come with an insatiable demand for assured, sustainable supplies of high-quality water.

It is hardly surprising that Hogan’s department is reluctant to reveal its water-stress figures when, according to a source, one well-known multinational requires no less than a quarter of Co Kildare’s water to run its operation. Who wants to risk scaring away potential Intels, Hewlett-Packards and Pfizers with doomsday scenarios?

It is of more than passing interest to Ireland that whole economies and a quarter of the world’s largest companies are already said to be threatened by water shortages. According to the risk-analysis company Maplecroft, these include the fast-expanding economies of China and India and, even more urgently, the Middle East and north Africa.

Closer to home, the EU has warned that, by 2050, the effects of climate change will trigger medium or severe water stress throughout the union. Already problems have emerged that are not confined to the usual victims. France, Hungary, the UK, Portugal and Spain have all reported droughts or less rain than the long-term average, while the Netherlands, Sweden and Romania have experienced “local limited water-scarcity occurrences”.

So what will it take to convince Joe and Josephine Citizen, marooned in yet another Irish flood, that water is precious, finite and, crucially, worth paying for? But perhaps our response hardly matters. There may be trouble ahead, but Phil Hogan is driving on. It’s what he has to do; he has little choice.

In the coming weeks he will take proposals to Cabinet to transfer water responsibilities from the 34 local authorities to a new national utility, Irish Water. This change is a compulsory stipulation of the memorandum of understanding with the EU and IMF, and the Government has only a couple of months to comply. For citizens weary of having their pockets plundered, the move can only spell two outcomes: privatisation and water charges.

It is estimated that an average of €600 million a year will be needed to comply with the EU Water Framework Directive. As there is no money in the kitty for the vital infrastructural upgrades involved, the funds will have to come from private investment, says Hogan. This is a thought to send shivers through much of the citizenry.

“They’ll have greater shivers if they have no water,” Hogan says. “The experience of cryptosporidium in Galway should have brought it home to people. Remember, families in Oranmore were spending €600 a week on bottled water.”

So are we on the slippery road to privatisation? “Water will continue to be a national resource,” Hogan says, with great deliberation and emphasis. “It will remain a publicutility and a publicresource.”

Much of his thinking will be guided by an independent assessment, by PricewaterhouseCoopers, that came up with some bleak findings about the current system. By this reckoning, the wonder is that the country has managed to stay (mostly nontoxically) afloat at all.

The study found that the water sector had no consistent policies, no standards, no consumer protection and no economic regulation; that it suffered from fragmented leadership, poor co-ordination and duplication of management; that there was an abysmal 52 per cent collection rate, on average, for nondomestic water charges; and that operational expenditure was “unusually high” by UK benchmarks.

It noted that “unaccounted-for water” – leakage on both the customer and distribution side that’s said still to amount to a staggering 36 per cent of total usage – “is a very significant problem and well above international standards”. And, unsurprisingly, it also highlighted the difficulties of implementing river-basin management and of rationalising the use of water sources when numerous local authorities were fighting solely for their own interests.

But the system also has some strengths. The operators are close to their consumer base, are locally accountable and can mobilise resources in time of need. The workforce is experienced and familiar with resources.

Three existing semi-State companies have pitched to operate Irish Water: Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna and the National Roads Authority. Their first task was to divine which of two organisational models will get Cabinet approval. One option is a self-financing company, responsible for operation, maintenance and investment, as well as customer billing and charging. The alternative is a company charged with strategic planning and investment in the sector, which uses local authorities as its agents of delivery. In this latter system the councils would retain responsibility for day-to-day operations and for delivery of smaller-scale investment.

Whichever option is preferred, there will be a regulator, as for other utilities.

“The hard part for the new entity,” says Hogan, “will be to deliver a massive water investment programme over the next five years, to comply with the Water Framework Directive and upgrade the infrastructure to have it fit for purpose.”

So where’s the money going to come from? “The company can be structured to attract private investment. People will invest in the company and negotiate a rate of return on that investment, in the context of a water-metering programme from 2014 onwards.”

Their security will be in the form of the national water assets – reservoirs, sewage-treatment plants and so on – to be deployed by the new authority. But Hogan wants it understood: there is no danger of privatisation.

There will, however, be water charges, in three years’ time. One expert reckons they could cost households an average of €400 a year, if UK charges are any guide. Hogan looks askance. “That sounds like a lot of money to me . . . The charge will be based on usage. I see water metering as a conservation issue.”

Usage usually falls in response to charges, typically by about 10 per cent. Sen John Whelan, a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, says: “People who think nothing of running their taps all day and night to counter a freeze might think again if there are charges, and you wouldn’t have them washing their cars and watering the flowers with treated water if they have to pay for it.”

So will the Minister be offering incentives? “They’ll incentivise themselves,” says Hogan, meaningfully.

Meanwhile, in a harbinger of territorial water wars to come, a bold €500 million scheme to take water from the River Shannon in north Co Tipperary, to slake the Greater Dublin Area’s thirst, is hitting turbulence. The Dublin City Council/Bord na Móna plan is to remove raw water from Lough Derg, near Terryglass, pipe it to a new reservoir-cum- recreational lake in a cutaway bog in Co Laois for treatment, and thence to the Greater Dublin Area. It has the ring of common sense: Dublin, the driver of the national economy, gets water security; Portarlington, where unemployment has ballooned by 300 per cent in a few years, gets desperately needed jobs and a tourist attraction in the form of the recreational lake.

In fact, Margaret Guijt-Lawlor can hardly contain her excitement. She’s the vice-chairwoman of Portarlington Development Association and gets the exotic part of her name from her husband, who is from the Netherlands, where, she says, they’ve been building reservoirs for hundreds of years. “The knock-on effect from this for local tourism and the potential to drive industry is phenomenal. So we’re looking to be prepared and to train up for it.”

There is certainly no shortage of labour in the vicinity. The number of unemployed has soared from 843 to 3,357 in the four years from January 2007. “The IDA hasn’t established a single job in Laois in 30 years,” says Whelan.

Guijt-Lawlor talks excitedly about the “cluster” of attractions that will be brought together by the recreational lake. “With the Slieve Blooms, Lough Boora, Emo Court and now the lake here, with walks and water sports – that’s the package holiday that people are looking for. Imagine being able to open all those water sports, chalet apartments, with people using the rail service into town. All the research shows that you need that cluster of attractions. The potential is huge. And that’s not even talking about the jobs on the technical side.”

Are there are no local objections to the scheme? “Not one,” she says. “And if there’s a town that’ll give out, it’s this one.”

There is high praise for Colm O’Gogain, Bord na Móna’s director of strategic infrastructure, who, it is said, responds within 24 hours to anyone who wants to talk.

But what’s in store for Shannonsiders? In a region that has suffered far more than its share of job losses, they are being asked to let their water quench the galloping thirst of the overdeveloped east, an area they believe is wilfully exhausting its own resources. Last week the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, chaired by Ciarán Lynch TD, made the journey to Terryglass, a charming Co Tipperary village, to hear the views of local tourism, angling, environmental and political interests.

More than 30 people, many with a lifelong affinity with the water, stated their case in civilised, nonargumentative fashion. What emerged were genuine concerns about the effects of the plan on water levels and, therefore, on boating safety, navigation, young fish, birds and wildlife.

Implicit was an absence of trust in the available water-flow data, as well as scepticism about departmental willingness to say no when Dublin inevitably yells for more top-ups from the Shannon. The Lough Derg Science Group sent a statement declaring definitively that the drawing-down of water in low flow during predicted drier summers will have an impact. Michael Lowry drew a wry laugh when he said that all the statistical information was coming from consultants employed by the plan’s proponents, “and it’s the norm in my experience that you get from the consultants the response that you require”. He added his voice to the many calling for an independent study.

A consultant, Tim Morrissey, said taxpayers should be asking whether the €500 million scheme would be “a major waste of money” given the combination of lower population projections, reduced leakage, and reduced water usage when charges kick in. He cited as an example the city of Brno, in the Czech Republic, which saw water demand plummet by more than 40 per cent following the introduction of meters, a drop that was too late to stop the construction of a hugely expensive new reservoir that is still operating at half its capacity 20 years on.

A persistent thread at the meeting was the sense that Dublin was being pandered to yet again. Committee member Kevin Humphreys – ironically called away briefly to help a flooded constituent back in Dublin – said the reality was that cities drive economies. “So what about Limerick, then?” called a voice in the audience.

Lynch, the committee chairman– a Cork man and possibly the only person in the room without a vested interest of some kind – revealed his attitude when he told a little joke about the perils of territorialism. A Cork city northsider was feeding swans on a riverbank when a fellow northsider objected that “you shouldn’t be feeding swans from the southside”.

The committee and the Shannonsiders are due to meet again in Dublin next week. Colm O’Gogain of Bord na Móna has already talked to Shannonsiders at length, as have representatives of Dublin City Council. Standing in the wild, unearthly silence of Garryhinch, the 280-hectare site of the proposed reservoir, O’Gogain’s enthusiasm is infectious as he separates a piece of bog cotton from peat.

He has tried to reassure people that the Shannon water flow will be strictly controlled and that data will be available on the internet in real time. “At the moment,” he says, “there is no way of knowing what the flow is. If a local tells you the levels are up or down, how are you supposed to say otherwise ? What I can say is that, from the available figures, between 1929 and 2010 there was only one year, 1995, when you couldn’t abstract water from the Shannon for a two-month period. And the new reservoir is sized to cover that two-month supply.”

He is as sincere and convinced of the projections as Tim Morrissey is sceptical. In O’Gogain’s view, the Greater Dublin Area is facing serious trouble. “Yes, we have plenty of rain in Ireland, but we lack storage . . . Sydney, for example, has to have three years of storage.”

The River Liffey, which currently supplies 83 per cent of water for seven local authorities in the Greater Dublin Area, is just about “maxed out”, O’Gogain says. “Whichever population scenario you choose, the trend is upwards and expected to grow, from 1.6 million in 2010 to between 2 million and 2.6 million by 2030. When the Leixlip expansion is done, by 2014, the Liffey will be at its maximum deliverable capacity. Supplies are maxed out. That will do us until 2022, but the important thing to remember is that during all that time it will be on a knife edge. Dublin has no headroom. Developing countries would have 10 to 20 per cent extra capacity. We have nothing.”

It could be worse. The economic downturn has bought us six years of leeway, he adds.

He understands the frustrations of the Shannonsiders. “In fairness, the real issue is unemployment. Nenagh is denuded of jobs; Limerick too. People display frustration in different ways, like saying ‘not a drop’. But I think if they’re honest, deep down, they’re concerned that you’re taking a resource from them to benefit somewhere else. They feel you’re taking water that will create employment somewhere else. But tourism is going to grow in Ireland in a different way from what it was in the past.”

Meanwhile, time is moving on. If the scheme got moving in the morning, O’Gogain says, it would take eight to 10 years to finish. “We’d be just getting it right at a time when global water shortages will be beginning. By 2025 China and Asia will be hit, so a lot of the industries that moved out there will be coming back . . . The problem is that, in terms of demonstrating to industry that we will have it right, we’re running out of time.”

Where does Irish drinking water come from, how much leaks away - and might we pay?

83%from surface water

11%from groundwater

6%from springs

In Ireland, unaccounted-for water – the difference between the amount pumped into the network and the amount we consume – runs at more than twice the OECD average of 20 per cent.

41.5%of Irish water was unaccounted for in 2009

41.2%of Irish water was unaccounted for in 2008

€1bnThe amount the State spends on water services each year.

€168mThe amount invested in water conservation over the past decade.

€321mThe total the Government will have spent on water-conservation contracts between 2010 and 2012.

€400The average amount that each household in Ireland might pay in annual water charges, based on UK figures, in order to contribute to the cost of supplying water. Under metering, the first 40-60 litres could be free, with charges after this. Fees could be reduced, waived or both for social-welfare recipients.

Water around the world

About one in eight people – or 875 million people around the world – lacks access to safe water.

By 2025 the world is likely to be taking 4,765 cubic kilometres of water for industrial, domestic and livestock uses. This would be 22 per cent more than the total taken in 1995, when 3,906 cubic kilometres was used.

National Geographicestimates that the average US lifestyle is fuelled by nearly 7,500 litres of water per day. Much of this is used for purposes we might not think of, from preparing oven chips (below) and washing prepacked vegetables to generating electricity.

How much water do we use around the house?

Using a washing machine 45 litres

Using a dishwasher 20 litres

Brushing your teeth with the tap on 6 litres

Brushing your teeth with the tap off 1 litre

Taking a shower 35-45 litres

Taking a power shower 80-125 litres

Having a bath 80 litres

Flushing a toilet 6-9 litres

Irish people use about 150 litres each of water per day

Showering and bathing 38%

Flushing toilet 27%

Washing dishes 7%

Drinking water 3%

Cooking 3%

Washing clothes 10%

Other (car, gardening etc) 12%