The Irish Times view on water supply failures: systemic problems

Rebuilding trust following recent illnesses requires the bringing of all water services under the remit of Irish Water

Water supply failures in facilities catering for large populations have exposed shocking systemic problems. In one case it led to illness among local consumers and in the other exposed tens of thousands of people to risk of debilitating sickness.

In Gorey, Co Wexford, an insufficient amount of disinfection was used, resulting in 52 people getting sick with E coli bacteria. At Ballymore Eustace drinking water plant in Co Kildare, failures in the treatment process meant 877,000 people living in the Dublin region were at risk as a filter to remove cryptosporidium (a tiny parasite) was broken for 10 hours. In both instances, it took far too long to alert the HSE and the EPA – and, most importantly, the people affected. In response, the EPA was uncompromising in its condemnation of "abject failure of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness by Irish Water and the local authorities in terms of their respective roles to deliver safe and secure drinking water". Its strong language was entirely justified.

Opportunistic microbes will always exploit the weakest link when it comes to food and drink production, especially water supplies. Both E coli and cryptosporidium can lead to serious illness and death, especially among those with compromised immune systems. Given delay in both cases, it was fortuitous the implications were not much worse.

Management of treatment plants and delivery of drinking water supplies is operated by Irish Water and local authorities. Irish Water has been contrite and acknowledged the incidents underline the need for a “single purpose utility” where service delivery is controlled and managed by one organisation. It has also increased auditing of treatment plants and underlined to local authorities the necessity for timely reporting of incidents.

Regardless of who provides drinking water supplies it is essential the public can trust the supplier. Rebuilding trust following these failures requires the bringing of all water services under the remit of Irish Water, and putting in place robust arrangements to end tardy reporting of process failures at treatment plants.