Boomtown's lack of H2O

A month after the crypto outbreak was first reported in Galway, nothing has changed.

Residents are angry. The fact that it has come to international attention and is hurting the tourism industry is not helping, writes Political Editor Harry McGee

GROWING up as a kid, I was fiercely proud of my native city Galway. I was able to reel off a slew of useful statistics that distinguished it as just about the most amazing place on the planet.

It was the second fastest growing city in Europe (I never found out the fastest). The population grew from 27,000 in 1971 to about 40,000 by 1980. Ballybrit Racecourse boasted the longest bar in Europe. Lough Corrib was the second largest lake (after Lough Neagh) in the British Isles. And — I was never too sure whether this was good or bad — Ballynahinch in Connemara was also the wettest place in Ireland or Britain.

All of the foregoing suggested two things — growth and H20. An abundance of water, of course, was a given. Galway Bay washed up to the city. And every second day there was a prolonged bout of horizontal drizzle. The River Corrib didn’t as much flow through the centre of town, but torrented through in fierce rapids.

But the growth that I boasted about as a kid has proved to be Galway’s undoing. The city’s population continued to increase unabated during the 1990s. To parrot Bertie Ahern, when the boom was getting boomer, the boomest place of all was Galway. The population of the city and its satellite towns is 90,000.

This has stretched its infrastructure to breaking point. Galway is as traffic-jammed as Dublin during rush hour. But it has gone beyond crisis in the invisible infrastructure — in its water supply and sewage systems.

There are two waterworks in Terryland, a little upriver from the city, one ‘old’, one ‘new’. The titles are misleading. The old waterworks is over 50-years-old.

The ‘new’ one is 25-years-old and built for a more modest city than boomtown Galway. In suburban villages like Oughterard and Headford, their systems strain to cope with new estates built in recent years. Oughterard’s facility was designed for 250 houses, not the 800 that have been built in recent years.

And the Corrib? The source of the water has become the source of the contamination. So much development. So much raw and inadequately treated sewage. Something had to give. So many EU directives on waste treatment that have been ignored. So many Section 4 motions have been passed by county councillors allowing once-off houses to be built without effective solutions for treating waste. The only surprise is that Galway managed to hold out for so long.

Laura Molloy is a young mother who runs a successful kindergarten in Knocknacarra, a suburb that has sprung up on the western flanks of the city in the past 25 years.

This winter, she noticed an unusual pattern. The rate of absenteeism among her young pupils was much higher than in other years. Children were coming down with mystery tummy bugs and diarrhoea. It was a phenomenon that didn’t go unnoticed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) either. They noticed the high incidence rate of people presenting with the self-same symptoms. But they had a name for it, one of those technical Latin names that now rolls off the tongue of Galwegians as easily as the ‘like’ we finish all our sentences with, like.

The disease that struck more than 200 people came from a parasite called the cryptosporidium — or crypto as it has become known — which is found in humans as well as animals and birds. Once contracted, it can easily be passed from human to human.

The HSE quickly ruled out a localised outbreak. In mid-March they contacted the city council and a preliminary ‘boil notice’ was issued by the local authority affecting 90,000 people. Within 24 hours it was established that both the old and the new waterworks had crypto levels way above the recommended levels.

This wasn’t just an outbreak, it was a crisis that would soon verge on a scandal.

The city has always been a tourist destination, but this week it’s been much quieter than it should be at this time of the year. The other thing that’s odd is that many people are carrying bottles of water in their arms. When you go into the supermarkets, like Joyces in Knocknacarra, the bottles of water are piled high, some brands offering two for one offers.

It’s a disgrace to think a city in reputedly the greenest and most temperate island on the planet has been without clean drinking water for a month. What’s coming through taps is the brackish non-potable gunk you would expect in countries thousands of miles to the south.

What amazes you is the patience of people in the face of all this hassle and grind. Everything has to be boiled. Or bought in bottles. Mundane things like brushing your teeth and changing a baby’s nappy or treating a minor wound or scrape now need forethought. And this will continue for another month and a half, until June 15, when the Tuam waterworks will begin temporarily supplying water to Galway city.

There are four questions that surround the issue, none easily answered. How did this happen? Could the authorities have taken measures to prevent it and was their reaction sufficient? What effect has it had and what are the long-term implications for the city? And how can a permanent solution be found?

A month after the outbreak the source has not been identified. Mayor and Green Party general election candidate Niall Ó Brolcháin got into a row with locals when he suggested the over-worked sewage treatment plant at Oughterard. But he was right. It’s rampant over-development and the fact that sewage treatment has lagged so badly behind.

Mr Ó Brolcháin shows an article from the Connacht Tribune dating back to 1999 when a microbiologist warned of a possible crypto outbreak.

When the extent of the problem became clear, certain politicians got involved in an unhelpful blame game. Chief among them was Environment Minister Dick Roche with his vow to bang heads together and his claim that €21 million that had been allotted to tackle this issue had been allowed to drift. That wasn’t quite the case. Still, when it became known that it was aware of a potential crypto problem since last September, its excuse that it had to go through a procurement process was wan.

With an election imminent, there was unsurprising flak, directed at councillors and at the mayor. But the crisis did serve to show the relative powerlessness of elected councillors compared to elected officials, especially when they tried to convene emergency meetings or come up with solutions. Last week, none of the council officials were available for interview with queries being referred to the city council’s website, which contained only one new update on the crisis this week. One of the focuses of two angry meetings last Wednesday, organised almost spontaneously and attended by 120 people, was the lack of information and communication from the council to ordinary people. Also the fact that it refuses to supply free water to alleviate the hardship.

The crisis has hurt the city, there’s no doubt about that. A meeting of hoteliers last Wednesday heard many complaints about official handling of the crisis. Pubs and hotels have had to buy water, buy ice and soothe the concerns of nervous customers, actual and potential. They claim that business is down 15-20% and that tourists have diverted to towns like Westport and Killarney. It’s even affected places where the water supply has been unaffected — like Connemara and the Aran Islands.

And the international media attention, for once, hasn’t been welcome. Mr Ó Brolcháin said he had spent the past week being interviewed by the BBC, the Guardian and other international papers, none of which was exactly positive for the tourist industry.

“It’s like the response to Katrina in New Orleans,” one hotel owner said to me. “The authorities failed to spot the crisis and when it happened they failed abysmally to deal with it.”

When Mr Roche finally came down, he and Mr Ó Brolchain hammered out a 12-point plan that will provide shot-term, medium-term and permanent solutions to the crisis.

But for now Galway is deluged with water, but without a drop to drink.

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