Sean Murray: We need to stop pouring precious water down the drain

Irish Water is steadily reducing the staggering 38% of water lost in Ireland’s leaky pipe network — and is encouraging households to cut waste too
Sean Murray: We need to stop pouring precious water down the drain

The average person in Ireland uses 150l of water per day — roughly equivalent of two bathtubs. That quantity can be cut significantly with some small changes in behaviour. Stock picture

May throws up a few days of successive sunshine and, before we can get the covers off the garden furniture, Irish Water rains on our fun.

Launching a new campaign aimed at encouraging people to conserve water, the utility’s regional operations manager, John O’Donoghue took to airwaves at the start of the week warning some of the country’s water supplies are already coming under pressure.

“We’ve had a long dry spell, and not much rain since Christmas,” he said.

“We’re getting concerned about some supplies, certainly in the southern part of the country.”

'We're getting concerned about some supplies,' says John O’Donoghue, Irish Water's operations manager for the Eastern and Midlands region. Picture: Water.ie
'We're getting concerned about some supplies,' says John O’Donoghue, Irish Water's operations manager for the Eastern and Midlands region. Picture: Water.ie

And the reasons — a combination of the lack of substantial amounts of rain since December and the fact that we’re heading into the driest season of the year.

According to Irish Water, some parts of the country are of more concern than others — with some counties on “drought watch”.

In Cork, concerns remain for the Killavullen public water supply, with a boil water notice in place. A similar notice is in place for Whiddy Island. 

Irish Water also has concerns for Clonakilty and Robert’s Cove, Mr O’Donoghue said.

Further afield, Inis Oirr off Galway and Louisburgh in Mayo also may potentially run into problems, along with Croom and Oola in Limerick.

Mr O’Donoghue said: “In the likes of Mullingar in the Midlands, it comes from a spring-fed lake.

“The level is already 200mm below what we were in 2018, which was when we had the worst drought in 70-plus years.

In Dublin itself, Poulaphouca supplies Ballymore Eustace which is the biggest water treatment plant in the country. We’re on drought watch there as well. 

Boreholes for some of Irish Water’s smaller schemes, particularly in the south of the country, will also be challenged again this year.

Disruption to our water supplies — or the fear of such disruption — has become something of a regular occurrence in recent years.

Last year, 70 of Irish Water's 800 water treatment plants across the country were in drought or at risk of drought. This led to the utility introducing “targeted night-time restrictions” to ensure supplies during the day.

A nationwide hosepipe ban was brought in in June 2020 for an initial six-week period. Under such restrictions, households that breach the ban can be fined €125.

In June 2018, a hosepipe ban was brought into effect amid a sustained dry period, and Irish Water warned at the time that it was facing high leakage levels of up to 50% in many schemes.

It also warned that the hosepipe ban could continue until October unless there was significant rainfall which did eventually come towards the end of the summer and the ban was lifted in September.

Much like the housing crisis, the annual problem is demand outstripping supply, according to Irish Water.

The average person uses 150 litres of water each day — roughly two bathtubs. The average household uses 125,000 litres a year. And while that’s below the excess charges threshold of 213,000 litres per year, Irish Water has been trying to get people to be more conscious of consumption to secure water supplies throughout the year.

Reducing waste at home

As part of that effort, Irish Water this week launched a new campaign urging people to conserve water in any way they can.

The new conservation calculator on the Irish Water website can help raise consciousness of our own water usage. See link below.
The new conservation calculator on the Irish Water website can help raise consciousness of our own water usage. See link below.

"We’re really trying to instill it into people that water conservation is something that’s important throughout the year,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

“No matter the amount of rainfall, we can only treat a certain amount of water.”

He said any efforts people can make will help Irish Water navigate the summer ahead — pointing out examples including turning off the tap when brushing one’s teeth, showering for a minute less, and putting a jug of water in the fridge instead of getting a new glass from the tap each time.

The utility has also created the Irish Water conservation calculator online where people can track their water usage and which points them to ways to conserve where they can.

The utility observed a sharp uptick in domestic usage from the start of the pandemic, when people began working from home in huge numbers. Even with the lifting of restrictions, which has seen many return to the workplace, high demand in homes is still there.

“People are working a mix of at home and in the office,” Mr O’Donoghue said. “In 2020, we’d have been under pressure as everyone was working from home during the pandemic. 

"The consumption patterns are difficult to predict at the moment […] but domestic demand is still quite high.”

Leaky system

But an elephant in the room when it comes to talking about our water supply, and concerns over its stability heading into the summer, is leakages.

In 2018, almost half (46%) of our water nationally was leaking from the system. Irish Water said that, by the end of 2021, this leakage figure was at 38%. It also says it’s on track to reach a leakage rate of 25% by 2030.

Hosepipe bans are a visible signs of Ireland’s supply difficulties and consumers  fear more frequent and more severe effects — from cuts in supply to boil water notices. File picture:  David Creedon
Hosepipe bans are a visible signs of Ireland’s supply difficulties and consumers  fear more frequent and more severe effects — from cuts in supply to boil water notices. File picture:  David Creedon

Earlier this month, a report from the Irish Water performance watchdog, the Water Advisory Board found that one in four customers had experienced interruption of water supply or boil water notices in the past six months.

The Water Advisory Board also said that the amount of water lost on the water distribution network is “unacceptable and needs to be a focus for Irish Water in the future”.

It also noted: “Irish Water acknowledges that leakage from its water supply networks is at unacceptable levels and well above international norms.”

A new leakage management system will be able to provide further data on leakages, and the Water Advisory Board will use this metric to measure the performance of Irish Water in ensuring as much water as possible delivered through its network is not list, it said.

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), which regulates Irish Water, also wrote to the company in March asking for clarity on its leakage data for 2020.

Mr O’Donoghue said that Irish Water was working with the regulator on this matter, and that fixing leaks across the system was a “very complex process” that required huge investment.

“There’s no quick fix for a lot of these,” he said. “It’d be easier for us if we had a smaller number of larger facilities.”

He said the water pipe network in Ireland is twice as old as the European average, at around 80 years. Some parts of the country are “more prone” to burst pipes due to the terrain and age of the pipes. These include some parts of Cork, Meath, and Louth but Irish Water is working to replace those, he said.

As well as asking households to “do their bit” to help conserve water, Mr O’Donoghue acknowledged that the utility also needs to do more to address the leakages in the system.

But, he emphasised, it does “take time” particularly when there are so many smaller water supplies around the country that require varying forms of attention.

Looking ahead

It may be over a half a decade since water was the single biggest political lightning rod but a tiny spectre of that controversy remains in the form of water meters.

Proposed powers would give Irish Water the ability to charge domestic customers for excess use. The excess charges threshold depends on the number of people living in a home but will be when a household uses 1.7 times the average amount over the course of a year.

What that means is more metering. According to citizensinformation.ie, if your property does not have a meter and is suspected of excess use, Irish Water may look to install a meter or calculate your usage using alternative technology.

It adds: “If excess usage is detected unmetered customers will be charged at the cap (currently set at €500 per year for both water and wastewater services) — unless a meter is installed.”

An Irish Water spokesperson clarified that this is not yet in effect.

He said: “No decision has been made by government in relation to a date for the implementation of household water conservation and the associated charging for excess use: 

Irish Water continues to liaise with the CRU and the Government in relation to this. 

Even putting aside excess use charges and water metering for now, it appears that further dry, hot summers will inevitably put pressure on Ireland’s water system and the utility that runs it under scrutiny.

“If you don’t get rainfall, there’s no quick fix,” said Mr O’Donoghue. 

“We do invest money in trying to solve the problems, we are working to try to eliminate those issues. We will have issues with drought for a number of years.”

 Irish Water MD Niall Gleeson with housing minister Darragh O’Brien at the opening last November of the new Vartry water treatment plant which is serving 200,000 customers in Dublin and North Wicklow. Picture: Naoise Culhane
Irish Water MD Niall Gleeson with housing minister Darragh O’Brien at the opening last November of the new Vartry water treatment plant which is serving 200,000 customers in Dublin and North Wicklow. Picture: Naoise Culhane

The only slight caveat here is that Ireland’s water system is in a better place now than it was in 2018 when hot weather conditions brought a water conservation order that lasted throughout the summer, according to Irish Water.

In Dublin, for example, Irish Water has been aiming to “build up its resilience” with a new water treatment plan in Vartry opening last November.

Despite the reduction in leakages, however, more needs to be done and we could be facing another summer punctuated by water disruption if we have lots of the weather many of us actually hope for during these months.

Mr O’Donoghue said that work is going on to fix leaks and address supply issues across the network, including proactively finding and fixing leaks, pressure management, and mains replacement.

Eight years ago, when the nascent Irish Water was facing controversy over spending on consultants, then taoiseach Enda Kenny was adamant on the need to change the “unsustainable” way Ireland had operated its water services.

He said: “We can’t have a situation where thousands have to boil water every day. We can’t have a situation where 40% of what we produce and you pay for is leaking into the ground.”

We all know how the plans to charge the public for water turned out. But the rest of what Mr Kenny said remains pertinent almost a
decade on, and the Irish public has
already faced recent summers marked by hosepipe bans and boil water notices.

Adding to that, the impacts of climate change and the potential for warmer summers means that these problems may continue to rear their head even as Irish Water says it is continuing that investment aimed at securing our water supplies into the future.

For the first time, the utility says, we will have a single overarching plan to effectively manage Ireland’s water supplies. But that doesn’t fully address the issues in the here and now.

Seven-year-old Abderahim Taicha from Scoil Treasa Naofa, Dublin 8, helping to launch the online Irish Water conservation calculator. See link above. Picture: Conor McCabe
Seven-year-old Abderahim Taicha from Scoil Treasa Naofa, Dublin 8, helping to launch the online Irish Water conservation calculator. See link above. Picture: Conor McCabe

“Because of leakage progress, we’re in a better place [than in 2018].” Mr O’Donoghue said.

“But what will negate that is the higher impact from when people are working from home which can put an extra pressure on it. We’re looking at increasing production anywhere we can, and building up resilience anywhere we can.”

Despite all this, we will still be at the whim of “how severe the weather gets” when it comes to how badly we’ll feel that impact on our water supplies this summer and perhaps another few summers to come.

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