The water challenge - Heatwave is a warning to us all

The recent spell of exceptional weather — the weatherman predicts that it has passed — reminded us all of how very precious a resource life-giving and life-sustaining water is.

The heatwave forced at least 10 local authorities to restrict the provision of drinking water as supplies were put under unusual pressure. The intense, sustained rainfall needed to replenish reserves remains elusive. Restrictions may intensify and become more widespread if reservoirs are not replenished in the immediate future.

Years if not decades of willful neglect of our urban water infrastructure — delivery pipes primarily — means that in some areas up to, if not more than, 50% of water treated to drinking standard is lost through leaks. Apart at all from the economics this misuse of a finite natural resource is no longer acceptable, especially as demand for water, particularly in the counties around Dublin, continues to rise year after year.

Farmers’ organisations have already warned that drought conditions will exacerbate the feed crisis of last winter. Should this happen it will ultimately have an impact on every family budget in the country.

Against this background it is not hard to argue that yesterday’s briefing from Bord na Móna chief Gabriel D’Arcy that the state-owned company is ready to apply for planning permission for a water reservoir on a 1,200-acre site in Laois is very welcome.

This project involves extracting water — “at times of plenty” — from the Shannon to serve the east coast. It has provoked justifiable environmental concerns but that does not mean that it is not a realistic response to our nascent water crisis. If there are viable alternatives they must be considered but they have not yet been proposed.

This does not mean that anything other than the most rigorous environmental standards can be applied to this project should it get past the proposal stage. Today’s need is great but it may be dwarfed by the needs of future generations so we need to ensure that nothing we do today limits or damages future options.

Unfortunately this did not happen in the past and too many rivers were destroyed to facilitate hydroelectricity schemes. Despite having a huge impact on our landscape these schemes barely generate 6% of our electricity needs today. Ironically, the artificial lakes they created are probably now more important as water reservoirs than they are as sources of energy.

The Shannon proposal raises the spectre of how rivers can be destroyed or rendered just seasonal by uncontrolled, relentless abstraction. Rivers right around the south east of England are in jeopardy because of the seemingly insatiable appetite for water. If Irish rivers, especially the Shannon, are so treated only to have huge quantities of processed water disappear through leaking pipes it would be sinful.

There needs too to be a cultural shift to encourage more use of grey water — water perfectly suited to most tasks but below the standard required for drinking.

If the Bord na Móna project is to go ahead, east coast local authorities must show they have reduced leakage from their systems to a tolerable level. The arrival of water charges should provide them with some of the revenue needed to update their supply systems.

Not to do so would compound an already unacceptable and dangerous situation.


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