The Irish Times view on Ireland’s water supply: focusing on the core problem

The recent heatwave should prompt us to think a lot harder about water – and climate

Access to water for necessities is a basic human right – but it still has to be paid for.

Access to water for necessities is a basic human right – but it still has to be paid for.

 

Despite the suddenly parched look on many fields and hedgerows, it is premature to speak of any general drought across the land. But the recent heatwave should prompt us to think a lot harder about water, and climate.

The core problem with our water supply, as with many environmental issues, is our failure to grasp that natural capital (in this case our landscapes) and ecosystem services (in this case clean water) are neither free nor infinite. As Pavan Sukhdev, the banker who led the landmark Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study put it: “We use nature because it is valuable, we lose it because [we think] it is free”.

A sufficient and secure supply of clean water requires serious investment by Irish Water, and therefore by the Irish taxpayer, in the built infrastructure of reservoirs and water mains. Minister of State for the OPW Patrick O’Donovan recently described the condition of the outdated and broken system Irish Water has inherited as “diabolical”. Yesterday’s burst main in Co Kerry, leaving 50,000 homes without water, underlines that point. Irish Water’s troubled refitting programme has not inspired confidence in improvements.

But we also need to think well beyond the engineering box here, and invest as well in nationwide nature-based solutions. Restoring our landscapes’ native forests and wetlands slows the release of water into our rivers, preventing massive losses through flooding (and evaporation), as well as protecting water quality through natural filtration. Access to water for necessities is a basic human right. But it still has to be paid for. For the time being, we have decided against individual water charges, even for non-essential use. That decision makes it incumbent on us all to conserve water prudently as individuals, using rainwater and grey water if we are gardeners, and never leaving a tap running a moment too long.

But it also demands that we think holistically about water. The EU Water Framework Directive is based on the insight that we all live in watersheds, that all our actions have consequences downstream. A farm or factory – or household – that releases groundwater pollutants damages the whole community, and should pay an appropriate penalty.

Awareness of this connectivity between landscape quality, water quality and our own actions has been given a welcome boost in many communities by the innovative Local Authorities Waters Programme, and the related work by NGOs such as the Sustainable Water Network and Streamscapes. But a great deal remains to be done. We need to think about water every day of the year, not just when the temperature rises, though climate change trends tell us that we urgently need to act decisively on that front as well.

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