Water is the most precious resource we have. Without it, human life would be impossible. Yet, in Ireland, we have a cavalier attitude about how we use water, even though it has been treated and stored for human consumption at a significant cost to the exchequer. As the massive protest marches against water charges showed, we regard it as a right that should be free for all, unlike other public utilities such as gas or electricity that must be paid for. Levels of wastage remain extraordinarily high, largely due to a long-term failure to maintain the distribution network.
In Dublin, the delivery of treated water is just about enough to meet demand. But with the capital’s population increasing year-by-year and projected to rise by more than 600,000 before 2040, Irish Water is seeking to progress a controversial mega-project – to extract 330 million litres of water from the River Shannon and pipe it to Dublin, at an estimated cost of €1.3 billion.
The proposed 170km pipeline from Parteen Basin, downriver from Lough Derg, is meant to be completed by 2025. However, it faces strong opposition from people living along the lower Shannon, who fear that the river could quite literally "dry up" if so much water is extracted from it to serve Dublin's needs, especially if climate change intensifies. They want Irish Water to focus on reducing the high levels of leakage, particularly from old pipes in the city centre, from as high as 50 per cent to a more sustainable 20 per cent or less, long before it resorts to raiding the Shannon.
The strongest critique of Irish Water's plan has been made by campaigning lawyer and investment analyst Emma Kennedy. Her detailed analysis has shown that only 25km of the capital's 9,000km distribution network is being renewed annually, which amounts to a mere 0.3 per cent of the total – way below the claimed replacement rate of one per cent per annum. In England, as she has pointed out, 13 of its 22 privately-owned water utilities have managed to reduce leakage levels to less than 20 per cent.
Significantly, Irish Water’s Shannon project is now being independently reviewed by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU). Among other issues, it is examining whether the utility had “appropriately examined all relevant options” and the extent to which its leakage reduction targets could reasonably address the greater Dublin area’s water needs in the future.
The CRU review, due to be completed in December, is very welcome. Given the chastening experience of massively escalating costs for the National Children’s Hospital, it is important that all of the issues involved are properly assessed so that we do not stumble into another large-scale infrastructure project without our eyes wide open to what it could cost in social, economic and environmental terms.