The Irish Times – Saturday, January 16, 2010
WE TAKE water so much for granted as one of nature’s gifts that there is almost nothing more frustrating than turning on a tap to find it sputtering and then going dry. Yet that is what thousands of people experienced over the past week as we discovered we’re now in the grip of a water crisis.
We thought we were in the clear when the icy conditions of recent weeks thawed. But this was an illusion. Apparently, so many householders had been leaving taps running to prevent water freezing – some, on the advice of insurance companies such as FBD, which says it was given “in good faith” – that reservoirs were drying up.
Combined with water mains and service pipes bursting as the ice melted, the downstream effect was unprecedented. Last Sunday, Dublin City Council had to produce 634 million litres of expensively treated water to meet demand – “the highest in history”, according to chief sanitary services engineer Brian Smyth.
To put this in perspective, the average daily demand in the Dublin region last year was 540 million litres per day (the region, for water purposes, includes Cos Meath and Kildare but not Wicklow). But unlike other European cities, supply and demand in Dublin is “on a knife-edge”, with very little room for manoeuvre.
Early warnings last week that supplies were running low, with appeals by the council not to waste water, provoked a perverse response from the public. Instead of going down, Smyth said consumption “went through the roof” in the days immediately following, rising to last Sunday’s historic peak. “People just panicked.”
The council’s response was swift. It reduced the water pressure by throttling the valves of reservoirs, and this left many consumers high and dry. Areas hit hardest include Cabra and Finglas (due to their relatively high elevations), and Rathmines and Terenure, where pressure was already lower than the city average.
Water tankers were rolled out for the first time since 1991, when the treatment plant at Ballymore Eustace had to be closed temporarily. Civil Defence fire engines were called in to pump water into the tanks of hospitals and other facilities.
It was like something you might see in parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America. People got accustomed to the unusual task of queuing with plastic containers to get supplies of water. There was no alternative – unless they wanted to splash out in the local supermarket on handipacks of bottled water, more pricey per litre than petrol or diesel. Some did, ignoring the council’s water tanker in the car park.
But the difference between 1991 and now was that the interruption in supply then lasted barely 48 hours, whereas nobody really knows how long the present crisis will continue. “We’ve got to recoup some storage before things can return to normality and we will continue to restrict supply until that happens,” Smyth says.
“It could be a week or two weeks down the road. Our main objective is to get water back to everybody, but it will probably take five months to get rid of leaks in the pipes from joints failing when the thaw set in,” he warns. “The council is in a catch-22 situation, as it’s more difficult to identify leaks when the water pressure is low.”
According to Phil Hogan TD, Fine Gael’s environment spokesman, the latest water shortage crisis was “entirely predictable given the shambolic state of the country’s water network . . . especially when 43 per cent of the supply was already leaking into the ground” – a level of leakage that’s abnormally high by EU standards.
“Why do countries like Sweden and Finland not suffer from widespread water shortages when they endure much harsher winters?” he asks. Noting that it costs €700 million a year to provide water here, Hogan says it was “simply not acceptable for some councils to report delays of up to six months to fix a burst pipe”.
In Kilkenny, his home county, nearly 57 per cent of all water treated for human consumption is lost through leaks in the distribution system or otherwise unaccounted for – the second highest level in the State; the winner in this category was Roscommon, at 58.6 per cent, according to an official report published last November.
The Local Government Management Services Board Service Indicator Report for 2008 also found very high levels of “unaccounted-for water” in South Tipperary (55.4 per cent), Cork city (52.9 per cent) and Galway city and county (49 per cent each). By contrast, South Dublin recorded the lowest level of loss, at less than 20 per cent.
According to Dublin City Council, the levels of leakage in the city have been reduced from 43 per cent in the late 1990s to 28 per cent today, thanks to a Government-funded water conservation programme. This enabled the council to install a telemetry system to monitor flows, see when and where the numbers changed, and dispatch “leakage detection teams”.
There are 2,700km of watermains in the city, including 800km that are more than 70 years old and need to be replaced; many of these are cast-iron, unlined and subject to corrosion. Since replacement got under way in 2006, some 60km – less than 10 per cent of the old watermains – have been renewed.
So far, €40 million has been spent on this programme in the Dublin region from an allocation of €118 million over five years. However, this “allocation” is more notional than real; all projects must be approved by the Department of the Environment and such approvals are being withheld due to the state of the public finances.
There’s also an element of playing with figures, according to sources. “The department has a rolling programme of €700 million a year for investment in water services, but this is never overspent – so it’s rolled out again,” one says. Dublin’s allocation of €48 million for 2010 is also down on last year’s because of cutbacks.
OF THE €5.4 BILLION invested in water services since 1997, some €3.6 billion was spent on new sewage treatment plants – to ensure Ireland complies with EU directives aimed at protecting the water quality of rivers and lakes. Yet compliance with the directive on the quality of drinking water still falls short, especially in group water schemes.
On average, we consume 150 litres of water per head per day for domestic use — significantly higher than most other Europeans. Of this, only three to four litres are actually ingested. Flushing toilets accounts for 30 per cent of total consumption, with the rest used for showers, baths, washing machines and dishwashers.
Our water consumption would be lower if it was metered and we had to pay for it, in the way industrial and other non-domestic users now do – at the rate of €1.72 per 1,000 litres for both water supply and sewerage. The installation of some 40,000 meters for users in these categories took nearly three years, finishing in 2009.
Michael Phillips, Dublin City Engineer, estimates that it would cost €110 million to put water meters in the region’s 216,000 houses or apartments. He is in favour of doing that, rather than charging a flat rate, which would allow people to “use as much as they like” while viewing it as a “purely revenue-gathering exercise”.
This week, Chambers Ireland not only called for water metering to be extended to the domestic sector, in line with the “user pays principle” and the Fianna Fáil-Green Party revised Programme for Government, but said this should be “brought forward to delivery within one year” – with the added bonus of stimulating the construction industry.
“The cost of providing Ireland’s ‘free’ public water supply for domestic users currently stands at €1.2 billion. If we are to protect this precious resource, all users must be conscious of how they use it,” says Seán Murphy of Chambers Ireland. And by measuring what is being used, leaks and blockages could be more easily identified.
There is no shortage of water. Nearly every drop of rain that falls on the mountains south of Dublin is “captured” for the city’s water supply. But although the Poulaphuca, Bohernabreena and Roundwood reservoirs are full of raw water, the “cisterns” holding treated water – such as Stillorgan Reservoir – remain seriously depleted.
“In the past, we were able to use the Christmas period to fill reservoirs, but we didn’t have that chance this year,” Phillips says. “The problem we have is so widespread that we don’t know when we’ll get back to normal and the system will be operated on day-to-day basis for the forseeable future. There is no magic wand we can wave.”
In the meantime, he repeated his advice that people should be “miserly in their use of water” – and thanked those who had already discovered Scrooge-like instincts for their co-operation.
‘I WILL NEVER AGAIN TAKE WATER FOR GRANTED’
Sue Egan in Shannon, Co Clare, is a single mother of two
TODAY IS MY 10th day without water and it is becoming increasingly hard. My main problem was at the weekend when my son picked up a bug and had severe diarrhoea and vomiting. I got a private plumber in, as it was so essential for me to have running water for my son. My mains were frozen and it meant that the whole garden would have to be dug up and the pipes put down lower to address it, so we couldn’t do anything.
I’m living in a council estate and I’m the only person in the estate who has this particular problem. The weather caused it. I’m in this house five years and never experienced anything like it. The heating was also affected.
In Shannon currently, there are restrictions on water between certain hours for everybody. There is no water available from noon until 5pm and then again from 8pm until 8am. But I don’t have water even during those restricted hours. It has made such simple tasks we all take for granted so difficult. It is a huge learning experience – for example, it takes 7.5 litres of water to flush my toilet.
I have asked the council to rehouse me or put me into a hotel. Not only did my son get ill, but I did too. I feel like I’m living in a Third World country where basic needs cannot be met . . . I was considering bringing my son into hospital so he would be able to get over the illness in some comfort.
I have called the council six times in the past week. Look, I understand it’s the weather, but at same time this house belongs to the council.
Only for my neighbours I don’t know what I would have done. I have around 50 containers for water in the house now and they are going left, right and centre all day long. It’s been an absolute nightmare.
I’m without water the longest in Shannon and they don’t know when it will be back. I will never again take water for granted.
In conversation with Brian O’Connell
Major Leak: Water facts
634m The amount of water in litres that Dublin City Council had to produce last Sunday to meet demand. The average daily demand last year was 540 million litres a day
2,700km The length of watermains in Dublin city, including 800km that are more than 70 years old
150l The amount of water per head per day that we consume for domestic use: three to four litres are ingested.
Flushing toilets accounts for 30 per cent, with the rest used for showers, baths, washing machines and dishwashers.
150l The amount of water used by the average car wash
€1.72 The amount industrial and other non-domestic users pay per 1,000 litres for both water supply and sewerage.
€110m The estimated cost to put water meters in Dublin’s 216,000 homes
7,000l The amount of water saved in a year by turning the tap off when brushing your teeth
35l The amount of water used in a five-minute shower – less than half the water used in an average bath (80 litres)
1 hour The amount of time it takes a garden sprinkler or hose to use more water than most people will use in three days.
58.6% The rate of leakage from pipes in Roscommon. Kilkenny has a rate of 57 per cent, followed by South Tipperary (55.4 per cent), Cork city (52.9 per cent) Galway city and county (49 per cent each). South Dublin recorded the lowest level at less than 20 per cent. Source: Local Government Management Services Board Service