Donal Hickey: Praying for rain — in Ireland

Donal Hickey: Praying for rain — in Ireland
Battling the wind and rain with an umbrella in Cork city. Picture: Denis Minihane.

IRISH folklore is replete with stories of priests praying for fine weather to help farmers save their crops in wet summers. However, the opposite could soon be happening when divine powers may have to be invoked to provide rain. And not just for farmers.

The many Irish people holidaying at home this year will probably have rain gear near the top of their packing list, but they may not need it at all. Seen as a wet country, we expect rain during the summer. Yet Ireland has the biggest trend in Europe for increasing summer drought and it is reckoned that around 1.76m of us are living in areas of stressed water supplies.

We need only look at the first six months of this year to witness our weather extremes, from large-scale flooding in February to a hosepipe ban in June. 

The dry spring of 2020 smashed low rainfall records at the meteorological station in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. While recent rain has brought relief, drought conditions persist in some areas. Irish Water has confirmed that 22 drinking water schemes remain in drought conditions and a further 63 supplies remain at risk of drought.

Arlene Crampsie, lead researcher on the Irish Droughts Project, says drought is an overlooked climate hazard in Ireland and it is likely that the frequency and severity of droughts in the coming decades will increase.

Water supplies for the Greater Dublin Area are particularly vulnerable to changes in reduced availability and increases in demand. During lockdown, water consumption rose by 24 litres per person per day. According to Irish Water, an equivalent daily increase of water usage for an additional 200,000 people occurred over the June bank holiday.

EPA director general Laura Burke last week highlighted growing uncertainty in Irish Water’s delivery of improvements to water treatment plants which she said is undermining people’s confidence in having safe drinking supplies. 

Tackling our water problems is a huge issue for the future, and 43% of all water supplied by Irish Water is lost, mainly through leakage, and the utility aims to reduce this to 38% by 2021 following a €500m investment. Hardly ambitious enough.

People also need more incentives from the state to make better use of water, says the Water Forum. There have been few domestic water conservation measures outside of the Government’s €100 conservation grant which was initiated, in 2015, then suspended, in 2016.

We’re lagging behind other countries in reducing risks with supplies, the forum warns. 

As scientists predict more and longer periods of summer drought due to climate change, priests could be praying for rain if we don’t catch up. Still, bring the rain gear and the wellies … just in case.

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