Water shortages - We still have time to avert this crisis

DESPITE increasingly dire predictions about water shortages along the east coast, especially in Dublin, there seems to be insufficient public appetite to change our wasteful and unsustainable habits.

The crisis, we are told, will come to a head within the next decade and already a campaign to pump water from the Shannon to Dublin is gathering momentum.

Dublin County Council figures show that demand stands at 540 million litres a day (MLD) in the greater Dublin area while only 518MLD are being produced. This story, to varying degrees, is replicated right across the country.

Vast amounts of drinking water are lost through dilapidated water pipes that should have been replaced decades ago. Drinking water is used to wash cars, water lawns, flush toilets and clean farm dairies twice a day because we have not changed our behaviour to match new circumstances.

We use water with abandon and find it inconceivable that on a island so sodden, waterlogged and susceptible to flooding that it might ever run out. Our use of grey water is still very poor and we could make its use obligatory in all new buildings, as well as offering incentives to make adjustments to older buildings.

In many ways this looming crisis epitomises so much of what makes this country a lot less than it could be. It epitomises our cavalier and ill-disciplined attitude towards the environment. It highlights our failure to plan and maintain the infrastructure needed to support a developing, expanding and sustainable society.

Ironically, some of the great water production costs faced by local authorities, who must make all of the water they deliver fit for human consumption, are incurred because they, or other local authorities, pollute that water in the first place. The 2007 contamination of the public water supply in Galway by cryptosporidium caused by ineffective sewage treatment along the Corrib is one of the more recent and glaring examples of this vicious circle.

The situation also highlights our capacity for self-delusion. Almost alone among European countries, Ireland does not charge for domestic water as if this finite, irreplaceable and absolutely precious resource had no value and was cost-free.

Now, in our moment of great need, water charges are being considered as a revenue generator. This idea should be nipped in the bud as any revenues generated this way must be ring-fenced to continually improve water treatment and delivery systems. Only a well-financed and efficient public water supply regime might resist the coming calls for privatisation.

Nevertheless, water will have to come from somewhere to satisfy the east coast’s needs but it is far too early to agree that the Shannon proposal is the right one.

Surely desalination must be considered as an option for a costal region in dire need of new water supplies?

And as desalination requires huge amounts of electricity it might just be the impetus needed to solve another looming problem – energy independence. Desalination schemes might justify building a nuclear power plant. Imagine the economic stimulus those two great projects would generate.


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