Heatwave underscores need for State to secure water resources

‘Reality is somebody is going to have to advance a serious amount of money to Irish Water’

When the rains stop reservoirs run dry, water shortages loom, while forest fires are more likely to happen. File photograph: Getty

When the rains stop reservoirs run dry, water shortages loom, while forest fires are more likely to happen. File photograph: Getty

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The impact of the July heat wave began to ramp up this week. By Tuesday, Irish Water had issued conservation appeals to three counties: north Dublin; Wexford; and Cork.

The following day Galway and Waterford were added to the list. By Thursday appeals to people in three more counties were made, Kerry, Clare and Kilkenny.

With demand for drinking water at exceptionally high levels, night-time restrictions have already been imposed in some places. Thousands of people in Drogheda were without water following a mains burst.

Similarly, rising temperatures prompted Met Éireann’s first orange weather warning for six inland counties: Cavan; Monaghan; south Leitrim; Roscommon; Longford; and Westmeath.

It has certainly been an unusual week – a high of 30.8 degrees was recorded in Mount Dillon, Co Roscommon, on Wednesday. Night temperatures have not fallen below a sticky 17-20 degrees.

Officially, it is a heat wave. In Ireland, the threshold for such a title is five consecutive days with temperatures above 25 degrees. But it is not yet a drought. That requires 15 consecutive days with less than 0.2mm of rain.

It is atypical but not as unusual as one might assume, though Irish people have selective amnesia to all other forms of weather other than rain.

There is a dry spell every year. On average, an absolute drought occurs every three years. In fact, there was one last year during the first months of Covid-19 in April and May. Indeed, last year was the driest spring in Ireland since records began in 1837. There was another drought in 2018. Moreover, this week’s temperatures are high, but not exceptional.

The highest recorded temperature in Ireland was 33.3C in June 1997 at Kilkenny Castle. This century, the record – 32.3 degrees in July, 2006 – is held by Roscommon’s Mount Dillon.

In Ireland, extreme weather means storms; snow and ice, or flooding after prolonged rain. Indeed, droughts and prolonged heat waves are not included in National Risk Assessment for Ireland 2020. That report sets out all of the potential risk facing the country, compiled by the Office of Emergency Planning, which became known nationally during the Beast from the East storm.

However, droughts and heat waves may not be regarded as a national risk now, but the certainty is that will change in future because of the effects of global warming. Even now, Ireland’s creaking water system struggles badly when the rains stop. Reservoirs run dry. Water shortages loom, while forest fires are more likely to happen. River levels run low, affecting salmon and trout stocks. If there is nitrate run-off into water courses, the oxygen levels in the already struggling rivers will fall.

Meanwhile, thunder and torrential rain is more likely, as happened in Germany last week, while many struggle with continuously high temperatures at night, especially the elderly.

“Ironically we [don’t] get the most extreme weather events in the winter,” says Minister of State for the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan.

“We get [them] in the summer. Last year, the towns of west Cork were flooded in flash rainfall,” says Donovan, who has responsibility for flood defences and other climate-mitigation infrastructure.

“My own home town of Newcastle West [Co Limerick] was flooded on an August weekend. Out of the blue came an August monsoon. Nothing like that had ever happened there before. We are dealing more and more with these events. The abnormal is becoming the normal. These extreme events are becoming more frequent,” he says, adding that they are “ challenging, to put it mildly”.

The State’s emergency planning system has been established for 15 years, he says, combining the efforts of government, local authorities, Health Service Executive, gardaí and other State bodies.

Irish Water plans to spend more than €5bn in repairs and renewals by 2024 so capacity and demand are not always on a knife edge. File photograph: The Irish Times
Irish Water plans to spend more than €5bn in repairs and renewals by 2024 so capacity and demand are not always on a knife edge. File photograph: The Irish Times

Better known for dealing with floods and snow, the National Emergency Co-ordination Group is chaired by Department of Housing official Seán Hogan, the national director for fire and emergency management.

For Hogan, the issues raised by a heat wave are the impacts on human health, water shortages, water safety and risk of wildfires in addition to, especially, flash flooding caused by thunderstorms.

Risk facing Ireland

Meanwhile, the Government on Friday sought views on the next national risk assessment – weather and climate risks are just a part of the menu, but they are an important part.

“Environmentally, the challenge of climate change grows more urgent with its associated risks of biodiversity loss and extreme weather events,” said Taoiseach Michael Martin.

However, Alistair McKinstry, a climate scientist at the Irish Centre for High-End Computing at NUI Galway, believes the risk facing Ireland are being underestimated. Citing the experience that faced Texas last winter, he said the United States had not winter-proofed pipeline joints, so “the electricity failed and several hundred people died”.

Even before global warming Ireland has seen droughts and the Icarus climate research group at NUI Maynooth has found historical record of the Shannon running dry in Athlone, he says.

“There is a plan to extract water from the Shannon for Dublin, downstream of Athlone. Even without climate change that river has run dry,” says McKinstry.

Ireland will have to adapt and become more resilient, able to endure long dry spells followed by intense rain storms leading to flooding because the soil is so dried out that the water will run off.

A third of the State must be forested, he argues. With that “ the land will hold 100 times more water than bare soil. The air absorbs heat. It is cooler under the trees, preventing the soil heating up.

“The point of that is to hold water in the ground. It will keep rivers flowing throughout dry spells,” says McKinstry, who is the Green Party’s sole councillor in Galway.

Since the droughts of 2018 and 2020, Irish Water has had a water scarcity (drought) management team, which meets regularly tracking supplies. The approach – defending nearly 1,500 water sources across the State – has allowed the utility to ensure continuity of supply during drought periods, says a spokesman.

Water levels at reservoirs and rivers are measured continuously, while Met Éireann rainfall predictions and soil moisture deficit figures are fed into the computations. During shortages, extra effort has to be made to pump water to homes and businesses on higher ground, while water flows and night-time restrictions help to cut consumption also.

For O’Donovan, Irish Water is facing increasingly impossible odds. “Our water infrastructure is in a diabolical condition,” he says. “I have the lash marks on my back from the battle over water charges. That has left it falling apart. The reality is that somebody is going to have to advance a serious amount of money to Irish Water.”

Ireland’s Water: By the numbers

  • 1.7 billion: Irish Water collects, treats and pumps 1.7 billion litres daily.
  • 680,000: 40 per cent, or 680,000 litres, is lost through leaks (this is a reduction on past losses when nearly half was lost).
  • 572 million litres: Every day, the Greater Dublin Area consumes 572 million litres, one-third of the State’s demand.
  • 133 litres: The average amount of water used per person every day for drinking, cooking, washing and flushing toilets.
  • €5.2 billion: This is the amount Irish Water plans to spend fixing things by 2024 so capacity and demand are not always on such a knife edge.