Water as a political issue still very much in play

Water restrictions have affected 120,000 people in Dublin, and look set to continue for days

A combination of burst pipes,  people remaining in their houses for days, and  a minority selfishly leaving taps running to prevent freezing conspired to increase water usage by 10%  across the capital

A combination of burst pipes, people remaining in their houses for days, and a minority selfishly leaving taps running to prevent freezing conspired to increase water usage by 10% across the capital

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A fortnight ago Irish Water appeared before an Oireachtas committee to discuss issues related to its remit. During the hearing its managing director Gerry Grant painted a stark picture of the situation in Dublin.

He told the committee that 40 per cent of the waters of the river Liffey were now being extracted to keep the city supplied with water. No more could be used because of the environmental damage that would be caused by the continuing reduction of water levels in the river.

With a growing population and a headroom (extra capacity) of only 7-9 per cent, Grant predicted that if there was a drought or a prolonged dry spell Dublin would find itself in “serious trouble”. Compounding that was an antiquated system of pipes that leaked a staggering 37 per cent of all water.

Extraordinarily, within 12 days that dire warning became a reality. Yet the crisis was not caused by a drought, rather the freezing conditions that brought the State to a standstill over the weekend.

A combination of burst pipes (many of them outdoors), people remaining in their houses for days (and using much more water than normal), as well as a minority selfishly leaving taps running to prevent freezing conspired to increase water usage by 10 per cent across the capital.

Dangerously low

The upshot has been night water restrictions (or in many cases complete water depletion) that have affected 1.2 million people in the region, and look set to continue for days.

The reason is obvious. Water reserves have been running dangerously low, down from 880 million litres in the city’s reservoirs to 750 million. Restrictions will have to continue until the reserves are replenished.

Politically, this has provided a fresh headache for Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and for the utility. Opposition spokespeople, particularly Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin, have argued that Irish Water and the Department of Housing should have been quicker out of the traps and should have had contingency plans drawn up for such an eventuality. However, Murphy’s spokesman said they have been aware of the problems from day one of the weather event.

Given the current state of the infrastructure, there is little other than restricting usage that can be done to replenish supplies. The technical complexities of reducing pressure means it’s not a very precise method, but can be tweaked over time to make the situation more tolerable.

Sting in the tail

The unexpected sting in the tail for Dubliners is a reminder of how precarious the water situation is in a capital, the population of which is expected to increase by over 200,000 over the next 25 years.

Irish Water has said that the only long-term solution is extraction from Parteen Basis on the Shannon. Neither Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen nor Ó Broin have opposed that in principle, but both have raised questions about the preferred route and the implications for other parts of the Shannon.

Substantial investments is required to address the legacy issues of an ancient pipe system, but what is provided for at present is insufficient.

Despite the end of the charges regime for now, it is clear that water as a political issue is still very much in play.

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