Mains supply awash with leaks behind Dublin water ‘shortage’

Fixing network leaks would eliminate need for €1.3 billion Shannon-Dublin pipeline

Water in Ireland goes through a vigorous filtration process so that it can be consumed by the public. Here's how it's done. Video: Irish Water


So, is this it? Every time we get some snow or a heatwave is Ireland going to grind to a halt? Storm Emma left thousands without water, and during the hottest summer for decades people can’t fill up a paddling pool for their children.

One thing is clear: this isn’t about a lack of water. No region in Ireland has insufficient water for supply. Every day Irish Water puts twice as much water into the system as is actually needed – because more water is wasted through leaks than is used by all the households and industry in Ireland put together.

Ireland’s leakage is the highest in Western Europe because its pipes have been neglected for decades. In countries where water is scarce they can’t afford waste so they have had to keep their pipes in order. Not so in Ireland. Ireland has so much water that it has always been able to turn up the tap, pumping ever-increasing amounts into the system to offset the leaks.

Twelve years ago, Dublin City Council said: “These mains are so ancient that leaving them alone is not an option.” But since then Dublin’s pipes have been all but ignored. It was shortsighted. It was a time bomb, and the pipes are now at breaking point.

The main peril of having such decrepit pipes is that they can’t tolerate cold snaps, or indeed long dry spells. When the ground around them shifts, they burst. Big bursts cause the water outages that are becoming a feature of life in Ireland. Some break through the tarmac and cause floods, Killarney-style.


While Irish Water agrees that the water infrastructure needs upgrading in general, reference to leakage was notably absent from its recent statements. More than 600 million litres of water were “being used” in Dublin, it said. “Being used” were its exact words. No acknowledgement that only about 300 million litres were “being used” in the true sense – the other 300 were “being wasted”, mostly by Irish Water itself.

Far more water is lost through network leakage (Irish Water’s responsibility) than by households, yet the narrative has seen the finger of blame pointing fairly definitively towards the householder. The implication is of excessive use, of waste. This is misplaced.

People in Ireland use considerably less water per head than the European average. The latest First Fix report shows that once householders are notified about leaks on their properties their response is outstanding: Irish Water has repaired 8 per cent of the leaks identified; householders themselves have repaired 36 per cent, despite no financial incentive to do so. Household leakage was cut by almost 40 million litres in just two years: the target was 11 million in 39 years. Householders didn’t just meet their leakage target: they smashed it.

In stark contrast, Irish Water is nowhere near meeting its own target. Between 2011 and 2021 it was meant to reduce network leakage from 205 to 166 million litres. Two-thirds of the way through that window, network leakage is now higher than it was in the first place at 207 million litres.

Irish Water says the only answer is to spend €1.3 billion pumping yet more water 200km across the country to Dublin. Meanwhile, it has set itself a mains replacement target of just 1 per cent per annum, meaning some pipes will not be touched for another 100 years. Déjà vu, anyone?

Irish Water claims that reducing leakage would not be enough to safeguard Dublin’s water supply. My analysis shows this to be wrong: if Irish Water does nothing more than meet its own leakage targets there will be a large surplus of water in Dublin from 2021, right the way out to 2050. This is difficult to comprehend, given that the population and economy are expected to sky-rocket, but when you are leaking such huge volumes of water then recovering even a small fraction is equivalent to an enormous new water source. And remember: leakage is treated as part of “demand”, so as you reduce the leakage you also reduce “demand”.

Spare capacity

Irish Water says Dublin only has 2 per cent spare capacity. That figure is wrong: Dublin’s spare capacity is at least 9 per cent, based on latest full-year data. Irish Water has suddenly (and without explanation) started to present “spare capacity” in a way that is neither the international norm nor the method used in its own earlier reports. This is inappropriate and misleading.

But didn’t Dublin almost run out of water ? If Irish Water had been on track to meet its leakage target there would have been no recent shortage of water. Peak “demand” would have been 586 million litres instead of 615, leaving a comfortable buffer to the supply limit. The suggestion that last week’s crisis had nothing to do with leakage is a nonsense: it had everything to do with leakage.

This is not to say that Dublin doesn’t have problems. Dublin’s water demand out to 2050 would easily be met by Irish Water simply meeting its own leakage targets, but its problems are much bigger than that. Its supply system is unreliable and volatile, its pipes are in a third-world state of disrepair and outages are becoming the norm. Dublin’s water supply is on a knife edge, but the problem is not a lack of water: the problem is the infrastructure.

Perhaps Irish Water has no intention of meeting its leakage targets – maybe the prospect of a vast new supply from the Shannon acts as a disincentive. Perhaps it has no intention of replacing its pipes at a rate suitable for a system in such dire straits – which is certainly above 1 per cent.

If so, Frankfurt and Paris will be rubbing their hands with glee. Investors will not relocate to a city with regular water outages – and no amount of Shannon water will stop Dublin having outages. Not only can we hang up hopes of paddling pools in the next heat wave, but water outages will hit the heart of the economy – and prepare for more disruption next time Ireland has a cold snap.

Emma Kennedy is a former corporate lawyer and financial analyst. She is the founder of Kennedy Analysis .

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