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Avoiding the winter water crisis

A year after our last water crisis, Ireland is struggling again with shortages and burst pipes. Yet not one kilometre of mains was replaced in Dublin in 2010. Only by spending heavily every year for a decade can we hope to fix our water infrastructure, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor

IT WILL take at least 10 years of sustained investment to replace or rehabilitate the decaying or substandard water mains that have burst in Dublin and elsewhere over the past fortnight, depriving thousands of people of one of the basic necessities of life during the Christmas holidays.

As Dublin City Council’s chief engineer, Michael Phillips, said this time last year when another rapid thaw caused similar difficulties, “there is no magic wand we can wave” to solve the problem. Much depends on the political priorities of the next government.

Given that domestic water charges are not due to be implemented until 2014, as pledged in the present Government’s recovery programme, hundreds of millions of euro in public money will have to be found over the next three years to pay for the work that needs to be done.

In Dublin, the demand for water surged to 610Ml – that’s megalitres, or 610 million litres in plain language – on St Stephen’s Day and 625Ml the following day. “This was by far the highest two-day demand we ever had,” says the council’s chief sanitary-services engineer, Brian Smyth. “We lost 130Ml from storage, just like that, and we’re still trying to recover.”

“It was as if someone had pulled a plug at the reservoirs,” says the Fingal county manager, David O’Connor. This unprecedented level of water loss happened even though all schools and many businesses were closed for the Christmas holidays.

What aggravated the problem was the extraordinary speed of the thaw after such a prolonged cold spell. Temperatures in some parts of the country rose from minus 15 degrees to plus 10 in just 36 hours.

Ground movements caused by the freeze and rapid thaw led to water mains and service pipes bursting, according to Gerry Galvin, the principal engineering adviser for water at the Department of the Environment. Many household connections were also affected, mainly because they had not been laid deep enough.

“Since the late 1970s building regulations have required all services to be protected from the elements, with pipes to all new houses laid a minimum of 600mm below the surface,” he says.

Many of the leaks arose in unattended commercial premises, which is why appeals were made to keyholders to carry out urgent checks. “More than 5,000 leaks were repaired over the past week throughout the country, ranging from small leaks to burst mains,” Galvin says.

“In most areas supply has been restored, even at low pressure and with night-time restrictions as local authorities continue to replenish depleted reservoirs.”

Co Clare was the “worst affected” this week. The duration of cuts will vary until reservoirs are full again, he adds.

Last April, Minister for the Environment John Gormley published details of a new water services investment programme worth €1.5 billion over the three years from 2010 to 2012. Of the total, €320 million was earmarked for the replacement or rehabilitation of defective or leaking water mains. “This will replace about 600km of the worst mains,” says Galvin. “But it’s going to take a considerable length of time sustaining the same level of investment if the problem is to be solved.” His own estimate is that just dealing with the worst mains will take 10 years.

The problem for this country is that our low population density means we have an awful lot of water mains – 25,000km in all, more per 1,000 people than any other European country. “Barcelona, with three times Dublin’s population, has only 4,500km of water main, compared to 8,000km in Dublin.”

To avail of the latest tranche of funding, each local authority with responsibility for water had to submit a “mains replacement and rehabilitation strategy [to the department], in order to ensure that we’re getting the best bang for our buck”, as Galvin puts it.

Dublin City Council is ahead of the posse because it put in place telemetry systems and district meter areas, which allow it to target mains for the best returns. (Telemetry systems allow workers to monitor water systems remotely.) As a result, “in the next two years, 100km of mains will be replaced” in the city and its water region.

According to the council, levels of leakage in the region have been reduced from 43 per cent in the late 1990s to about 30 per cent. Since 2006, however, only 60km of defective water mains have been replaced – 10 per cent of the total needing renewal.

Not a single kilometre of leaky mains was replaced in Dublin last year, despite last January’s water crisis. Work is due to start shortly on rehabilitation schemes in Dún Laoghaire, Bray and Wicklow under three separate contracts, and two further tenders will close next month. As a result the length of mains replaced or rehabilitated is expected to increase to 115km by the end of this year.

Projects to renew a further 165km are “sitting on the shelf ready to go as soon as we get a nod from the department,” says Smyth.

In the past most of the emphasis in successive water-investment programmes was on water and sewage treatment schemes, driven by a legal requirement to meet the terms of EU water-quality directives. This meant that water-main renewal was virtually neglected.

AFTER REVELATIONS THAT the leakage rate in some counties, such as Roscommon, Kilkenny and south Tipperary, was more than 50 per cent, compared with less than 20 per cent in south Dublin, John Gormley decided to “make it a priority after years of underinvestment”. The programme he launched last April would provide “record levels of investment in both overall water infrastructure and, in particular, mains rehabilitation”.

He also dismisses Fine Gael’s proposal for a national water authority, pointing to the experience of Northern Ireland Water, which has been criticised for leaving thousands without supplies over Christmas.

On Thursday, after a lengthy board meeting and consultations between lawyers, it was announced that Northern Ireland Water’s Scottish-born chief executive, Laurence MacKenzie, was stepping down after 18 months in office. It was said to be a personal decision. Nonetheless, as the publicly-owned company’s website says, MacKenzie was “responsible for the overall performance of Northern Ireland Water”.

That’s not how it turned out. Over a three-day period after Christmas, Northern Ireland Water was bombarded with 600,000 phone calls, 10,000 e-mails and 500,000 hits on its website from customers who had been left in the lurch. An independent investigation has been ordered. A six-hour meeting of the Stormont Executive on Thursday night agreed that the inquiry will look into the performance both of the company and of Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy, of Sinn Féin, during the crisis. Murphy has rejected calls that he should resign.

Gerry Galvin says Northern Ireland Water “didn’t have the resources to draw on to fix leaks whereas councils here were able to redeploy staff from other departments to help with this work”. It also seems that there was a “water production problem” in the North.

He also points out that privatised utilities in Britain, including Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water, Scottish Water and Welsh Water, all had similar problems to ours. “I’ve looked up all their websites – it’s just that they didn’t receive as much media coverage,” he says.

Galvin says the €4.6 billion invested in Irish water infrastructure between 2000 and 2009 “compares very favourably with the UK”, where €90 billion worth of investment was made by British water companies, given the difference in scale between the two countries.

One issue on which Gormley is clear is that any proposal to set up a privatised national water utility here “has to be resisted tooth and nail”. The idea of “making money out of it should be anathema to right-thinking people”.

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