Our failure to manage it, protect it, cherish it, and ensure our children will have a plentiful supply in the future shows us in a poor, almost infantile light time after time.
The outgoing Government’s efforts to turn decades of neglect around by establishing a single water authority and introduce a water charge was embarrassingly inept, but that does not take away from the logic, or inevitability, behind the project. That fiasco was a major factor in Fine Gael’s loss of 26 of the seats the party won in February 2011. It contributed to something approaching oblivion for Labour.
Water charges led to the largest public mobilisation in decades but it is not hard to argue that those protests were as much about the feeling of powerlessness and anger so very strongly felt after years of cuts and reduced services as they were about new water charges. Despite all of those protests, something around 40% of all water processed for drinking is lost through leaks in a rickety, unfit-for-purpose water infrastructure. That figure hits an unsustainable 57% in Cork county and Kerry. If population predictions are even half right that network will need a radical overhaul.
Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that a national flood management group charged with making proposals on flood defences had not met for six years. The urgency of that issue was highlighted in Cork again this weekend when the combination of high tides and one day’s heavy rain brought minor flooding to the city centre.
As if that was not enough, the EU Commission is focussing anew on a case against Ireland over our failure to protect rivers and coastal areas from sewage pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees compliance with the EU Waste Water Treatment Directive, warned that 31 large urban areas failed to meet EU standards, while another 45 urban ones did not have any treatment plants. The escalation of the case involves new complaints against Ireland after deadlines for improvements in 12 large urban areas were missed. Under the 1991 directive three areas — in Cork, Donegal and Wicklow — were to have had secondary treatment in place in 2000 but, 16 years later, we’re still waiting. Irish Water put the cost of the upgrades at about €2bn.
The prospect of an extra 300,000 animals in the national dairy herd, and the huge quantities of effluent that will generate, raises fears about the destructive impact a similar expansion has had in New Zealand where rivers and natural underground reservoirs have been badly polluted. Teagasc suggests that a single cow overwintered in a shed for 18 weeks will produce 1,300 gallons of slurry. So 300,000 extra cows overwintering in cattle houses means at least an extra 390m gallons of effluent. Where will it go?
And of course water, how we manage it — or mismanage it — will be a bargaining chip later this week in negotiations on forming a government. Unfortunately, experience shows that this will be more about short-term populism rather than the kind of hard-nosed action urgently required.