Shannon pipeline: Is it the best way to spend €1.2bn?

A campaigning lawyer says the case for the Shannon-Dublin water pipeline is full of holes

It is described as "one of the most important [infrastructural] projects in the history of the State". Though not quite at the scale of Ardnacrusha hydroelectric scheme in engineering significance, the Shannon-Dublin water pipeline will cost more than €1.2 billion and its footprint will be immense. The pipeline is intended to supply 40 per cent of Irish households concentrated in and around Dublin with water from the river Shannon by 2025.

That’s assuming it goes ahead as planned; some campaigners will fight it every metre of the way.

The pipeline project has pitched a corporate lawyer from London who lives in Switzerland against Irish Water. For more than 18 months, their robust exchanges have gone largely unnoticed in the public domain. But recently it has led to a call on the Government to seek an independent review of how the utility determined the need for the pipeline.

Emma Kennedy, in a series of reports undertaken on her own initiative, argues that Irish Water "drastically overestimates future water demand in Dublin" and fails to adequately address a leakage problem in the capital's existing network. If left unaddressed, this leakage will cause untold supply problems as public health risks mount, and costs will rise even more to finally rectify matters.


Irish Water says it would cost up to €5 billion to replace the city's defective pipes (totalling 8,000km), many of which date back to Victorian times. This is separate to spending the equivalent of €700 per Irish household on the pipeline, under the "Water Supply Project – Eastern and Midlands Region".

Irish Water’s analysis, argues Kennedy, includes basic mathematical and analytical errors. If what she claims as errors are corrected “technically, no new raw water source is needed at all”, she says.

‘Highly misleading’

As a consequence, Irish Water’s “public statements about the need for the project have been false, or highly misleading”, claims Kennedy.

“The ancient and corroded state of Dublin’s water mains is the key factor undermining its water supply. Dublin’s problem is not a lack of water; only about 43 per cent of the water put into its water supply system each day is actually used,” she says.

Irish Water, while accepting that Kennedy has raised valid issues, does not accept her observations. Water conservation and replacing pipes “plays its part in all sustainable water networks, however it is not the golden arrow solution for meeting increased demand”, the utility said in response to Kennedy’s first submission in 2016.

Irish Water issued a 34-page rebuttal of Kennedy’s analysis in 2017, though she claims the utility has yet to fully respond to issues she has raised.

Kennedy’s is a self-employed lawyer who advises banks and other clients on major investment decisions, and is accustomed to engaging in forensic analysis of companies and projects. She has worked on this project on a pro bono basis “in the public interest”.

She has close connections to Co Tipperary and a personal interest in the future of the pipeline – its planned route goes through the family farm of her husband William, located between Nenagh and Lough Derg.

The more I dug, the more outrageous it became

“It’s very convenient for Irish Water to say I’m conflicted. We are not ‘nimby’ [not in my back yard] people,” she insists. She says she pursued the matter on principle and that her motivation is what she regards as a flawed case for the project. “The more I dug, the more outrageous it became,” she says.

Emma Kennedy’s basic contentions are:

– Irish Water’s analysis contained basic mathematical errors. Correcting just three of these shows there is no need at all for the Shannon project.

– Dublin’s water pipes are so corroded that they have a 57 per cent leakage rate. This is far from normal – comparable cities have leakage below 10 per cent.

– London (with leakage rates less than half Dublin’s) is replacing its entire Victorian water mains. Irish Water has no such plan. Replacing Dublin’s mains will become unavoidable in the coming years – the Shannon Project would be a very expensive sticking plaster;

– Why pay twice? Replace Dublin’s mains now and save €1.2 billion;

Irish Water’s “overestimation of future water demand” is typified by the suggestion that Dublin will have a water deficit of 215 million litres a day by 2050, Kennedy says. “After just three of its calculation errors are corrected, that 215 million litre deficit becomes a 55 million surplus.”

She also challenges Irish Water’s cost assumptions on fixing leaks; the use of a much longer timeframe to estimate water demand, which she says plays to their case – and “extremely unambitious” leakage reduction targets.

This is against a backdrop of domestic demand being steady for the past decade, and an international trend of reduced demand from industry.

The pipeline

Similar to an oil or gas pipeline in structure and physical impact on the landscape, the Shannon-Dublin pipe will cut through farms and other properties, affecting 500 landowners. Construction will affect some farms for two years, allowing extra time for land to recover.

The route corridor, from Parteen basin downstream of Lough Derg to a termination point reservoir at Peamount in south Co Dublin, is largely set – though there is some room for discussion for minor route adjustments.

Irish Water continues to engage with landowners and farmer organisations such as the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association. Compensation packages will be offered to landowners in coming months. An environmental impact assessment is being finalised.

Irish Water says a pressurised pipeline will exist on the route as far as a hill near Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. From that point on, water will move by "gravity flow" to Dublin and so facilitate supply diversions to midland towns such as Mullingar, Edenderry and Navan.

Construction of the 172km pipeline will take three to four years "with a view to water delivery by 2025 to the eastern and midlands region". By end of 2018, the planning application is due to go An Bord Pleanála, which will determine its fate.


Irish Water's head of asset strategy, Sean Laffey, says "there is a perception out there that we don't want to tackle leakage". There is no basis for that, he adds, though he agrees that current leakage levels in Dublin are "unacceptable".

London is confronting its leakage issues but has considerably more money to do so, while Ireland is 30 years behind the UK, according to the utility's senior project manager, Gerry Geoghegan. Ground has to be made up with far fewer resources. The level of water than can be recovered in reality is less and takes a long time to feed in systems.

“We’re not ignoring leakage but to focus exclusively on that is not the best way to go either,” he adds. The complex principle of “the economic level of leakage” applies.

Irish Water’s analysis used established methods developed by the UK water industry and considered “best practice”, Geoghegan says. “What [Kennedy] calls ‘aggressive’ we call ‘prudent’.”

“All the evidence to date tells us that recovery and conservation of water will not be sufficient to meet future needs due to demand growth,” Laffey adds. Their calculation of “headroom” – the safety net between supply and demand – “is robust for the condition of the network and level of uncertainty in demand versus supply in the near future”.

“It’s important to remember that need is more than just water,” Laffey stresses. “It also includes resilience, to make sure we are not significantly dependent on a single source. Currently 83 per cent of Dublin’s water comes from the river Liffey.” Moreover, Dublin is using up 40 per cent of the Liffey’s water every day, “the limit of what is sustainable”. A contamination incident could result in 83 per cent of Dubliners losing supply.

Moreover, Ireland is back in a strong growth phase, combined with rising population. Water availability was an issue in securing foreign direct investment, while the food processing industry, the pharma sector and microelectronics companies are highly dependent on water.

Political response

When Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath raised the matter in the Dáil recently, Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan responded on behalf of Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.

“Your response would suggest that you, and perhaps also Minster Murphy, have not yet read the Kennedy analysis of this project. Your response appeared to be a statement written by Irish Water,” Kennedy noted in a subsequent email to him.

“It is of some concern that no Government Minister appears to have taken the time to read the detailed analysis produced by the Kennedy analysis team,” she wrote. “You do not have to scratch the surface very deeply to discover that a project of the scale of the proposed Shannon Project is no longer needed.”

“It is very poor governance to deem Irish Water the appropriate arbiter of whether or not the Kennedy analysis is valid,” she added.

McGrath has called on Minister Murphy to facilitate an immediate all-party briefing. “Irish Water’s position on the project is rife with basic mathematical errors and misleading statements about its necessity,” said McGrath, who received the analysis as a member of the joint committee on housing. He echoes Kennedy’s call for an independent review. “The document we have received... makes for absolutely terrifying reading in terms of the utter waste of hundreds of millions of euro of public money.”

Kennedy, whom he has met, had “forensically deconstructed Irish Water’s estimates for this project and has clearly demonstrated that at the very least a complete overhaul of the entire project is necessary”.

Dublin's problem is that its water mains are in a third-world state of decay, having been neglected for decades

McGrath adds: “Dublin’s problem is that its water mains are in a third-world state of decay, having been neglected for decades.”

In a 2016 OECD study on leakage levels in cities across the world, only four cities had leakage levels above 40 per cent – all were in Mexico (Dublin did not feature in the study), he noted. "How will constructing this pipeline address this scandal? It will not."

If the Minister does not reply adequately, McGrath says he intends organising cross-party support to highlight “this monstrous waste of public money”.

Public health issue

Kennedy believes Murphy's lack of oversight is "damning". If this were a company, shareholders would not put up with such a scenario: "There would be accountability and good governance. All we are saying is that somebody independent needs to read this stuff...from his department, to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, to the Department of Finance. "

Dubliners should accept the disruption of replacing the antiquated pipe network, Kennedy argues, “in return for rectified water volume, quality and pressure issues as well as ensure a viable proposition for investors needing confidence in water availability and quality”.

“If I was a Dubliner, I would be concerned about leakage and the quality of water,” she notes. “Leaky supply pipes are running alongside sewage pipes that are leaking too. Irish Water accepts ‘water ingress’ is happening.” In Kennedy’s analysis, “that means raw sewage”.

As a consequence, she says, more chlorine has to be used in water treatment, which in the presence of organic matter often found in surface water supplies can give rise to trihalomethanes, which pose a separate health risk.

If such a scenario existed in London, Kennedy says the utility Thames Water would be facing substantial fines.

On the pipeline itself, she asks what would happen in the event of the loss of water due to contamination or supply interruption in the pipeline. She fears it’s an “all or nothing”, single-source solution.

Some 10 years ago Dublin City Council acknowledged the scale of leaky pipes could not go unaddressed. "But that's what they have done," adds Kennedy, who accepts Irish Water has invested in modern treatment works.

Irish Water made an apparently sensible case for the pipeline before an Oireachtas committee, she says, citing massive traffic disruption for Dublin if leakage is to be immediately addressed.

But Kennedy claims it’s based on a false premise. London, with far greater traffic complexities, had proceeded to replace pipes.

Irish Water’s “highly defensive” reaction to Kennedy’s analysis amounts to an avoiding of key issues, she says.

“Those who will rubber-stamp the Shannon Project must challenge Irish Water before it is too late.” If they doubt the merits of her case, she suggests they seek an independent review of both sets of analysis. “The risk is too high to ignore.”

While Irish Water accepts Kennedy has rigorously challenged its methodology, it’s fully satisfied with its own analysis incorporating a huge number of variables, and the facts that underpin it, “backed by independent analysis”.

Laffey says Irish Water was transparent in publishing separate economic and engineering analysis which came up with figures different from Kennedy’s. “But to say we have made false statements is not correct.”

Irish Water is updating the “project need report” to take account of new information including updated census data, which it says “confirms the project is both necessary and cost-effective”.