Dublin’s water supply is on a knife-edge, wrote Harry McGee in the Irish Times on 10 March.
He quoted Irish Water figures showing that they can produce 640 million litres of water a day for Dublin while the demand is 570 million litres.
Any significant weather event, whatever that might be like – snow, freezing, an excessive dry period, or heat – causes a severe disruption to supply.
The difficulty for Dublin is that there is a very high rate of leakage (about 37 percent) due to ageing cast-iron pipes, corroded mild steel, asbestos pipes, and old PVC pipes.
The Vartry Reservoir, the condition of which had caused considerable disquiet for some time, is currently under repair. This source supplies 200,000 homes in the Dublin. The second major source for the metropolitan area is the Liffey, which provides 80 percent of total supply.
With the city so close to capacity and with such a high level of leakage, having only two significant sources is risky. The state, through Irish Water, is looking to the Shannon as a source.
This is highly controversial in the west of the country and would be at least ten years in planning and construction. An additional source of supply was first mooted 23 years ago and now the clock is ticking for the city.
The Shannon scheme is being designed to deliver an additional 330 million litres, which would provide for Dublin’s needs up to 2050. If the city doesn’t have enough water, it will impact the whole economy.
Water is key to development, to industry, to house building, and to food production. North County Dublin is a significant producer of food for the state, and for export. Plants such as Intel’s use vast quantities of water.
If we’re looking at high-tech and pharmaceutical industries for future economic growth, then the increase in demand for water will be far greater than current estimates.
The population of the Greater Dublin area is expected to increase by 250,00 in the next 20 years, and perhaps much more. The Eastern and Midland Region is expected to grow by an additional 200,000.
That would require many more homes. It would also bring a significant increase in the demand for water – a new Vartry Reservoir just for those houses alone, irrespective of the additional employment generated.
So why have we got into this perilous situation? As you drive alone on our many motorways, reflect on the capital expenditure programmes of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Roads and motorways are popular. You can see them and you get to places quicker.
Water and sewerage, on the other hand, remain hidden in our underground pipes. The level of investment that went into the road network far outweighed need, and ignored a gaping hole in other key infrastructural requirements, of which water and sewage are but two. (Broadband and alternative energy supplies require articles of their own.)
Clearly we need to fix this, and urgently. Irish Water, which is perhaps unfairly much-maligned, is working to address the big sources of leakage in the city. Already, leakage has been reduced from a high level of 49 percent to about 37 percent.
The repair and renewal of pipes coming Vartry Reservoir is underway and will be completed sometime in 2020. When big projects like the Luas happen, then old pipes are replaced and key repairs take place.
In a city as old as Dublin, only some repairs will be economically viable or possible. So what other means can be used to solve the city’s water problems? We could try to reduce usage.
We all know the difficulties encountered in charging for excessive use over a personal limit. Clearly, this will remain politically unpalatable for some time to come.
But encouraging people to install water butts would help to some extent. Perhaps, a scheme of free water butts would help people to conserve. The economic argument for this may be compelling if viewed over a five- to ten-year horizon.
If the four local authorities put in more green infrastructure in the Greater Dublin area, that would also help to address waste water and tackle pollution in our rivers.
Clearly, if the Shannon water scheme is to go ahead, it will take persuasion and consultation. It will need strong political leadership – which is currently in short supply.
That means addressing the “Dublin versus The Rest” argument. The debate around the National Planning Framework indicates that there is little hope of that. The voices of Dublin public representatives arguing for investment in the city are either ineffective or absent.