Photo by Simon Auffret

Irish Water wants to construct a 170km pipeline to bring water from the Shannon River to Dublin.

The proposed pipeline would start in County Tipperary and terminate at Peamount in South County Dublin. As well as addressing Dublin’s water needs, the pipeline would also supply midland communities en route.

At an estimated cost of €1.2 billion, the project would see 330 million litres of water drawn from the Shannon every day by 2050. Subject to approval, work would commence in 2019 and be finished by 2024.

That Dublin needs additional water is not in doubt. Irish Water estimates that the population of the Greater Dublin area will have risen from 1.5 million people in 2011 to 2.1 million by 2050. The population of Fingal alone has already risen by 8 percent since the 2011 census.

Having last week announced its preferred route for the pipeline, Irish Water now plans to hold public consultations over the next 14 weeks to facilitate public feedback.

At least some of that feedback will be hostile. The River Shannon Protection Alliance and a farmers’ campaign – Fight the Pipe – fear that the impact on water quality, agriculture, tourism, and other sectors will be disruptive and potentially long-lasting.

Up to 500 farmers may be eligible for compensation, as will the ESB due to lost hydro-electric generating capacity. Angling, tourism, and other interested parties could also qualify for “community gain” compensatory payments.

But the critics say compensation is not the point, and that the project is not necessary in the first place. They lay particular stress on the dilapidated state of Dublin’s water pipes, some of them up to 100 years old, which causes the loss through leakage of 40 percent of the water they currently carry.

The Protection Alliance makes the point that the Shannon scheme could reduce the incentive to eliminate this “profligate waste”.

Liam Minehan of the Fight the Pipe campaign also raises another objection: “Who says that when this piece of infrastructure is built, it won’t be privatised? So what Irish Water is trying to do now is nothing less than a resource grab.”

That might seem like scaremongering, but Irish Water (an organisation viewed with deep and understandable suspicion by many people) has form here: there are reasonable grounds for believing that the introduction of water metering and charging was intended as a prelude to privatisation.

An opposition bill to ensure that Irish Water remains in public ownership by means of a constitutional referendum was introduced by Dublin South Central TD Joan Collins last week, and supported by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. It passed through the Dáil after the government, knowing it did not have the numbers to block it, decided not to oppose it.

But there would not necessarily be anything to prevent a particular Irish Water project – such as the proposed Shannon pipeline – being sold off at a future date.

The worldwide experience of water privatization is a far from happy one. The UK, a pioneer of such privatization, has seen the private companies concerned charge ever higher bills for an often unreliable and inefficient service.

In summary, while the case for boosting Dublin’s water supply is unassailable, there are at least three reasons for concern about this proposal.

The first is its potential impact on the environment and on sectors such as tourism and agriculture. The painful experience of the Corrib Gas project shows that large-scale infrastructural initiatives can impose appalling costs on host communities, especially when the state decides that the need for “vital infrastructure” trumps the legitimate concerns of protesters.

The second concern is the prioritization (or not) afforded to conservation. Is there a case for tackling the current waste of water through inadequate maintenance of, especially, Dublin’s pipe network, before considering a hugely expensive and disruptive pipeline from the Shannon?

The third is the fear of a privatization agenda that could see a vital resource upon which vast numbers of people depend transferred to a commercial company more concerned with profit maximization than with guaranteeing public provision of an essential service.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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