Our attitudes to wasting water and rivers of human waste a dirty shame

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that as a society we have closed our eyes to our own crap, writes Victoria White
Our attitudes to wasting water and rivers of human waste a dirty shame

THEY’RE calling it “the chocolate fountain”. Whenever there’s heavy rainfall the Dodder Valley sewer overflows through the manhole beside Balrothery Weir in Firhouse in Dublin 24. Local residents have shown me pictures of a sewage lake and a sewage river flowing towards the River Dodder where it is at its most beautiful. There’s a mound of toilet paper stuck to the bank to prove the point.

“I still feel worried even walking down here, but there’s been a lot of rain,” says the local man who’s showing me the bank. But the thing that really worries him is seeing kids playing in the stones which have been bathed in the overflow. He says the Council’s response was to surround the manhole with a temporary fence which wasn’t exactly effective against rushing water.

We know from the Environmental Protection Agency that a third of our rivers and more than half of our lakes are polluted. We know that the number of pristine water sources has declined steeply in recent years. We know that inadequately treated sewage disgorges into the sea in some of our most attractive locations, from Clifden to Youghal, from Arklow to Crosshaven.

Yet it is still shocking that the River Dodder is allowed to continue in this state, flowing as it does through some of the most populated areas of south Dublin, within pea-shooting distance of the EPA headquarters on the UCD campus. The EPA staff don’t even have to walk out at their lunch-break to get an idea of what the Dodder Valley sewer can do after heavy rain because there is a manhole on campus in UCD which has been known to blow off and scatter waste water within a range of 10 metres.

But Irish Water doesn’t seem to have any problem with the Dodder Valley sewer, even though you only have to open your eyes to see the sh*t. Right through January, every time I walked the banks I was arrested by the vision of an overflow grille into the Dodder just beneath the Windy Arbour playground in lower Dundrum, swathed in toilet paper and all things toilet. My husband made a video of the seagulls in a feeding frenzy as the effluent burst into the river.

Irish Water has not as yet responded to my request for information on the origins of the sh*t but the water quality lobby group SWAN Ireland elicited the response that this pollution must come from a private source. This is described by Redmond O’Hanlon of the Dodder Anglers as rubbish.

He says the said grille has been regularly swathed in toilet paper for 30 years at least — it’s an overflow from the Dodder Valley sewer which can’t cope with its load when there’s heavy rain. One of their members has seen the effluent bursting out of the grille, leaping the river and hitting the opposite wall.

O’Hanlon argues that flood water must be given a different escape route than the public sewers. He adds that the effluent currently going into the Dodder doesn’t kill the fish. The river is certainly at its cleanest in living memory. But there’s no denying that the phosphates and nitrates in waste water are among the most serious causes of pollution in our rivers, a hazard for wildlife and humans alike. It seems no-one gives a toss. It’s like it’s just not happening.

Irish Water is not aware that up at Balrothery Weir there’s a planning application in for the second time for 70-plus apartments which would have nowhere to send their sewage except into the aforesaid “Chocolate Fountain”.

Planning was refused last year for a range of reasons but the sewage load was not one of them. The decision is now being appealed and some locals are organising to try to highlight the sewage issue as best they can.

Further down the river at Rathfarnham there is talk of taking a case to Europe on the basis of the EU’s Water Framework Directive. You can’t blame them. Ireland is already two years late with implementing the directive, having come up with the recession as an excuse, the same one we used at the Paris Climate Talks.

We are fed the promise that Irish Water will “take a comprehensive approach to targeting investment in and improving the management of urban waste water infrastructure.” Except that Irish Water can’t see the sh*t running past its door.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that as a society we have closed our eyes to our own crap. We create quangos and we produce reports but if they say something we don’t want to hear we ignore them. Right back in 2005 the Greater Dublin Strategic Drainage Study clearly said that the Dodder Valley sewer was at capacity and outlined the development that was needed. It stressed the flooding risk at Firhouse, Dundrum, Goatstown, Clonskeagh, and the UCD campus.

The recession meant that development eased. Just try to imagine the sh*t which is going to flow when development gets going seriously again in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, and all points in between. Then mix it with climate change which means once in 100 year flooding events happen all the time.

A US study this week predicted a sea level rise of up to 1.5 metres if we don’t implement the Paris Agreement. But climate change was not an issue at all in the campaign for tomorrow’s election.

It wasn’t mentioned in any of the debates. The Environmental Hustings hosted by the Irish Environmental Network and Young Friends of the Earth in Dublin attracted Green Party, Fianna Fáil and AAA candidates but not one single General Election candidate from either Government party.

And the only issue related to water which has gained any political traction is how quickly, how completely, and how absolutely the said politician will axe Irish Water and any meaningful link between wasting water and paying for it. And while we’re at it, let’s axe a few billion out of the general taxation which might go some way toward fixing our broken water system.

In her 2008 book about human waste the writer Rose George called Ireland “a rich country with an infrastructure more suited to a poor one”. We have been led down the dark sewer of our native greed by politicians looking for the easy vote when we could have been inspired to look at the sky; to take ownership of our beautiful country and the rivers which flow through it; to fight for clean water in our taps, in our lakes, in our seas. We could have been inspired to love our country.

Tomorrow is another day. Chocolate, anyone?

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