Dr Alec Rolston: Time to pray for rain amid spectre of water shortages

May was the driest month in Ireland since 1850 and the hosepipe ban shows that drought is a possibility unless we increase our retention capacity, writes Alec Rolston
Dr Alec Rolston: Time to pray for rain amid spectre of water shortages

May was the driest month in Ireland since 1850 and the hosepipe ban shows that drought is a possibility unless we increase our retention capacity, writes Alec Rolston

A hosepipe ban was introduced on June 9, following the unusually dry spring. It is due to be in place until Tuesday, July 21. Photo: Rollingnews.ie
A hosepipe ban was introduced on June 9, following the unusually dry spring. It is due to be in place until Tuesday, July 21. Photo: Rollingnews.ie

During the first six months of 2020, Ireland has transitioned from a time of large-scale flooding in February to implementing its second ever Water Conservation Order (hosepipe ban) in May. The dry Spring of 2020 smashed the records for low rainfall at Ireland’s longest continuous meteorological recording station at the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

Since Irish Water initiated the Water Conservation Order on May 14, the country has received some welcome rain and the Hosepipe Ban is to be reviewed by Irish Water. While the recent rain has brought some relief, drought conditions persist across some parts of the island. Irish Water have confirmed that currently 22 drinking water schemes remain in drought conditions and a further 63 supplies remain at risk of being in drought.

Ireland is perceived to be a wet country, yet it has the largest trend for increasing summer meteorological drought in Europe and it is estimated that approximately 1.76 million Irish people are living in areas of water stress, where the demand for water is not being met. By delving into Ireland’s drought history, an Irish Research Council-funded project is showing that drought in Ireland is not an unusual event.

“The last 30 years have been unusually drought free in Ireland”, said Dr Arlene Crampsie, lead researcher on the Irish Droughts Project. “But 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”.

Examining media archives has highlighted how past droughts have affected the country. “The long drought threatens to become a national calamity…I therefore authorise you, under the present circumstances, to use the prayer for rain” wrote the Bishop of Meath in the Irish Times on July 1, 1887. That 1887 event has been identified as one of the most intense island-wide droughts of the last 250 years.

In a statement that would not have been out of place in Ireland in May, the Leinster Leader reported in 1921 that “In the city of Dublin the supply of water is almost exhausted and notices have been issued warning the public of the possibilities of a water famine.”

The water supplies for the Greater Dublin Area are particularly vulnerable to changes in both reduced water availability and increases in water demand. During lockdown, water consumption increased by 20 litres per person per day; and Irish Water have stated that over the June bank holiday weekend an equivalent daily increase of water usage for an additional 200,000 people occurred.

Dublin relies on the River Liffey to supply more than 80% of the city’s water needs and the main treatment plants at Leixlip, Vartry and Ballimore Eustace are at their maximum production capacity – they have no, or very little, ‘headroom’ for further drinking water production.

Globally, over 2.3 billion people live in water scarce areas and that number will have increased by around 350 million people by 2030. Many cities worldwide have begun planning for a future where water is scarce. The French city of Lyon, of similar population size to Dublin, is expected to increase its population by 300,000 by 2030. Due to the challenges it is facing, the city has initiated a revolutionary ‘Masterplan for Territorial Coherence’ to develop Lyon around its water resources.

This aims to create a city that lives with water by regenerating the city’s water services, delivering water sensitive urban design, preparing for extreme climate events, and by empowering water-wise communities.

Water-wise communities are essential, but they need to be assisted by legislation and policy. The opportunity for increasing rainwater harvesting and recycling household wastewater exist, but Ireland’s building regulations need revision to facilitate national-scale action to reduce water consumption. Opportunities for retrofitting also need to be pursued.

There has been little stimulus for the general public to initiate domestic water conservation measures outside of the €100 Water Conservation Grant which was initiated in 2015 and then suspended in 2016. Despite action undertaken and progress made by Irish Water to reduce leakage rates on water distribution networks, they are an easy target and excuse for further inaction by the general public.

Currently, 43% of all water supplied by Irish Water is lost, and the utility aims to reduce this to 38% by 2021 following a €500m investment. Recognising that further progress requires additional expenditure and time, there needs to be greater ambition to reduce leakage further below 38% beyond 2021.

But even with some progress on reducing leakage, there remains a need to diversify water supplies to reduce the risk of large-scale water outages.

Planning for the future sustainability of our water supplies is essential. Irish Water are currently developing the first National Water Resources Plan, a 25 year strategy setting out how the utility will balance the supply and demand for public drinking water. The draft plan will be released for public consultation this year, giving the opportunity to provide feedback on how drinking water is managed into the future.

Ireland needs to catch up, and fast. Otherwise, as we look forward to future dry periods, we may well heed the Bishop of Meath’s advice from 1887 and “pray for rain”.

*Dr Alec Rolston is Research Lead for An Fóram Uisce.

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