Where Are the "Water Wasters"?

Emma Curran, Alex Murray, and Eoin O'Mahony

Eoin O'Mahony lectures in geography at UCD and Trinity College. Emma Curran and Alex Murray are students.

If, as seems likely, domestic water charges will be abolished, what remains is the question of who is wasting water. The Oireachtas committee reviewing the expert commission’s report is stalled, and water waste is a central issue.

That’s because Fine Gael want to introduce some kind of charge for those who waste water, although they prefer not to identify who those people might be. Fianna Fáil are sort of against charges.

With this in mind, Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett asked Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney a pointed question on 23 February.

The deputy wanted to know “if [the minister] has requested local authorities to ascertain the number of swimming pools that are in private residences across the country in view of his support for an excessive use water charge”.

In his written answer, the minister reported that, among other things, “no information in relation to swimming pools in private residences is available in my Department and I have not requested that such information be collated”.

The minister is not wrong: his department does not collate that information. But local authorities do when people apply for planning permission for their back-garden swimming pools.

Here at UCD, we have collected this information. We searched for the phrase “swimming pool” in each council’s planning database, eliminated duplicate records, institutional and health club applications and then discarded the compliance records for pre-existing applications.

Working with these applications from both Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, we have mapped 106 locations that we believe have residential swimming pools.

Our map does not mean your neighbour has a pool, it merely means they have applied for permission for one. Some might not have been built, even if planning was granted.

Using freely available software, we mapped all 106 records to their approximate location (the applications have house numbers). What else are geographers to do?

Using a point-in-polygon analysis – the pools are points, the polygons the electoral districts –we identified several neighbourhoods across Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown where there have been many swimming pool applications.

The pattern is clear and perhaps, not surprising. Most of the city’s swimming pools are located on the eastern side of the city, with concentrations in Clontarf on the northside and in Ballsbridge and Dartry south of the river.

In the south of the suburban area, we see larger concentrations of applications (and probably pools) in Kilternan and Stepaside and then further east again around Shankill. Killiney has seen ten applications for swimming pools in recent years.

The data we have collected tells us nothing about how big these pools are. But as the map illustrates, there is a geography of residential swimming pools and it broadly matches the areas in Dublin where there is more relative affluence.

There are several other swimming pools in the city, of course, most of which are in public ownership or have public access. But why not levy a charge on those who own the private pools, as one step towards addressing water wastage?

After all, one way to think about water wastage is in terms of a subsidy from those households where everyone has a bath in the sink, to those households with very large heated bathtubs in their garden.

Map by Emma Curran, Alex Murray, and Eoin O’Mahony

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Emma Curran, Alex Murray, and Eoin O'Mahony: Eoin O'Mahony lectures in geography at UCD and Trinity College. Emma Curran and Alex Murray are students.

Reader responses

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Joe C
at 29 March 2017 at 09:47

Firstly, I want to applaud the contributors for showing some initiative on this subject. There’s a sea of information in various formats and skilled people out there, but nobody with knowledge of, or pertaining to such groups seems to exist when anything resembling a bureaucracy is questioned on availability or sourcing of information. I understand that a person cannot know everything but an understanding that this information can be sought relatively quickly is not too much to ask of a government when there’s a skilled population.

However, I’m afraid your own data might be flawed. I’m only commenting on local knowledge but, from the area I’m near, there’s nothing marking the outdoor pools in the back gardens of a row of rather affluent houses that are very visible on Google Maps and have existed for decades now (as far as I know). The two points in the area marked as having pools have none, though this latter point was addressed in your notes. Still, for the entire suburb, there’s two dots on areas with no pool even close, and no dots on the pools that have been there for a long time. It would make me cautious about the information elsewhere for areas I don’t know.

Eoin O'Mahony
at 29 March 2017 at 10:16

We have only been able to place points (indicating planning permissions) at approximate locations. The application might say No. 18, we cannot find that exactly using the mapping technology we used, i.e. there is no strict geocoding in this map. I take your point.

steve white
at 29 March 2017 at 13:28

is having a swimming pool wasting water?

at 29 March 2017 at 13:43

And just think, if the water charges (like exist in most of the “free” world) were left, these pool owners would just have to pay per L for the water they use. If they are careful with general water use, harvest rainwater or have a well or some other legal water source for their pool, maybe their consumption would not be exceptional and they wouldn’t have be caught by this proposed jealousy tax.

Meter it and pay for it. It’s not free.

By all means, make a reasonable free allowance available to all on a per member of household basis if that is considered equitable, give an additional allowance to people with stated medical conditions if that strikes you as fair, but water is not a public good.

I am better off if your children are educated and your bins are emptied. These are public goods and should be paid for from the public purse (through taxes) but anything more that about 20L per person per day of potable water is a private good and should be paid for by the user.

Currently living and working outside Ireland and am fortunate enough to have a pool. I also happen to know I use less metered-treated water than my non pool owning next door neighbour. (I pay about €900 p.a. for water and sewerage, about 2/3 is service charge and sewerage. Metered water costs €1.70 per kL which puts my average water consumption below the Dublin average. Sewerage is based on rateable valuation. Houses on the other side of the street pay more for pooh!)

Joe C
at 30 March 2017 at 11:42

@Eoin O'Mahony: @Eoin
I understand, and wouldn’t have mentioned the inaccuracy of the area if it was only slightly off. However, when I mentioned there was no dots near the row of houses that have had pools for a long time, there’s no dots anywhere near them. Not the same street, the next street, or the block over. The nearest dots are far enough away that, should any of them represent this location, what’s to stop that level of fuzziness of geolocation coords placing dots in neighbouring polygons and skewing the count figures for suburbs, etc? Or else there’s no data for these pools. I’m not sure which scenario is closer to what’s happened.

I’ll emphasise that I think this sort of project is wonderful and I’m not having a go. I just thought some constructive feedback would be beneficial and I do hope it is.

Eoin O'Mahony
at 30 March 2017 at 11:45

@steve white: In my view having a pool for your use only is a waste of water.

Liam Ferrie
at 30 March 2017 at 11:52

This is Ireland where, according to the Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services, we have “one of the highest rates of water availability in the world”. Why are we so obsessed about limiting the domestic use of water. No matter what restrictions we put on the domestic sector we cannot reduce overall water usage by more than 3%.

All the debate is focused on the domestic sector which in total uses far less than the acknowledged 45%-49% leaking from the Irish Water controlled mains. Could we please introduce some sanity into the water debate?

Dermot Lacey
at 5 April 2017 at 13:41

Mind you it is these locations that have swimming pools that are generaly in favour of charges.

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