Ireland’s looming water crisis

Colin Murphy

Colin Murphy

On a wet Saturday in January 2009, Noel Denmead looked out his window at the plaque affixed to the low wall opposite his house, in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, and thought things were going to be okay. ‘the family that pray together stay together’, says the plaque; above it is a relief of two hands holding rosary beads. It is dedicated to Edel Quinn (1907–1944), a lay missionary from Clonmel who became envoy of the Legion of Mary in East Africa. The legend, in large, cheery, light-blue letters, is written in over three lines, like this: ‘the family that / pray together / stay together’, and the bottom line is just above the pavement. Noel Denmead could read the top line, ‘the family that’. The rest was under water.

‘The top of the ‘pray’ was gone,’ he told me the following Monday, sitting on a chair in his living room, wearing wellies. A dehumidifier hummed lightly in a corner. The sofa was sitting on a table. ‘The water was about half way between the “t” on the “the” and the “p” on the “pray”.’ That meant that there was about two feet of water flowing down the road outside; in a normal year, that would have been tolerable. Noel Denmead’s house, as with all the others in his terrace at Old Bridge, Clonmel, is raised above the road level as protection against the chronic flooding of the river Suir. Every year, the road outside is flooded, and Noel Denmead and his wife, Kitty, watch the plaque opposite to get a sense of the height of the floodwaters.

‘We watch it rise, and we take our time. We hold out for as long as we can before we start moving everything.’

That January, as the water climbed up the ‘p’ in ‘pray’, they emptied the bottom cupboards in the living room and kitchen, and moved the good furniture upstairs. The army had delivered sandbags, and Noel Denmead had placed them in front of the house to block water rising from the road.

Mid morning on Saturday, Noel Denmead took a call from Marian Finucane, live on air on RTÉ Radio One, and described his experience of being flooded over the years. While he was talking to her, he noticed water trickling through the living room. ‘Jesus,’ he said to himself, ‘it’s feckin’ coming in the back of the house.’

The Denmeads’ house backs onto a small meadow that leads to the banks of the Suir, twenty or thirty metres behind. There used be a depression in the middle of the meadow, and when there was flooding this would fill with water, giving the Denmeads a further indicator of the level of threat to the house, in addition to that offered by the plaque out front. But an extensive flood-relief scheme in Clonmel had transformed the meadow behind the house into a construction site, and with the topography altered Noel Denmead hadn’t noticed the threat from the back. The sandbags out front were now keeping the floodwater in rather than preventing it from entering, and Noel Denmead rushed to remove them.

‘We were caught by the hasp of the arse,’ he said.

Clonmel has always been prone to flooding, and suffered badly again last November – as did localities in various parts of Ireland where flooding is not common (or where, as in the case of new housing estates built on flood plains, water had not previously threatened people’s homes). Whether or not any particular recent flood can be attributed to climate change is impossible to say, but climate change models predict an increase in flooding in Ireland, particularly flash floods caused by short bursts of very heavy rainfall over concentrated areas.

Every image of floodwaters on the nightly news reinforces a common misconception about Ireland: that we have too much water. And if there is too much water, how can there not be enough?

* *

In a small office on the campus of Maynooth University, one day in 2007, Conor Murphy pressed ‘return’ on his computer and went off for a cup of tea. The computer hummed away, and by the time he returned, fifteen or so minutes later, it had produced a list of figures. For the previous two and a half years, Murphy had spent ten hours a day entering data into the computer: the first results of his doctoral research. What the computer gave him was a massive spreadsheet, projecting values for rainfall over parts of the eastern seaboard of Ireland for every fifteen-minute period from now to the end of the century.

Conor Murphy’s research involved three stages. First, he selected a ‘global climate model’ – a mathematical model of how the atmosphere and oceans interact under different climatic circumstances, which uses research data and mathematical equations to project future weather data – from among the various models developed by international scientific institutes. In the second stage, Murphy inputted various scenarios for future concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which were in turn based on different estimates of population growth and energy usage. The third stage involved ‘downscaling’ the results from the global to a more local level, creating a regional climate model for Ireland. He repeated this approach using different global climate models, different emissions scenarios, and different methods of downscaling. The first two and a half years were spent inputting data and adjusting his models; in the final months, he started to run his projections.

In Ireland, Murphy found, climate change is likely to provoke an increase in extreme events, such as storms and floods, in winter, alongside a rise in sea levels, and reduced flows of water through watercourses in summer. By the 2020s, he estimates, the south and east coasts will see reductions in summer water flows of up to 16 per cent. By the 2050s, they will see reductions of up to 28 per cent; by the 2080s, there may be 40 per cent less water flowing through our lakes and rivers in summer. Potato growing will no longer be viable in the east and south-east of Ireland. In the south-east, pastureland – that is, grass – won’t grow without artificial irrigation.

‘I think we might be over-believing this airy-fairy global warming stuff,’ declared Noel Ahern TD at a meeting of the Oireachtas transport committee in January of this year, in the aftermath of an extended spell of icy weather that had closed roads and airports. Ahern seems to have been making the common error of believing that global warming must mean that all places are warmer all the time. But even if he and other climate-change sceptics are proved correct, and the dramatic changes in rainfall patterns projected by Conor Murphy do not come to pass, Ireland’s ability to supply clean drinking water to its population over the coming decades is by no means secure. The water shortages experienced in Dublin at the beginning of this year – of which the cold weather was the proximate cause – were shocking to many, but they were a salutary reminder of how vulnerable public water supplies can be, even in a country as wet as Ireland.


Dublin’s current water-supply infrastructure dates as far back as the 1860s. Before that, there was a limited public water supply in the city, drawn from the newly built Grand and Royal canals, which fed reservoirs at Blessington Basin and Portobello, and distributed through the city via a limited network of cast-iron pipes.

The canals had two rather severe disadvantages as a municipal water supply: the water pressure was so poor that they could only deliver water to ground floors and basements; and they were filthy. ‘See the nauseous abominations conveyed into them from manure boats, dead dogs, etc,’ wrote one Dubliner of the day, Walter Thomas Meyler. ‘Drink the canal water as it is and you swallow filth and animal nature; boil it and you drink a decoction of poison.’* But many Dubliners did not have direct access even to this water. Thomas Willis, a renowned doctor, apothecary and social campaigner, wrote in the 1840s of the north inner city parish of St Michan’s:

Of those houses let to weekly tenants, not one in ten has the water conveyed into it by branch from the street main. The tenants in such cases are dependent for their supply on the public fountain, which is often at a considerable distance from their residence. The water is not constantly on in these fountains. The wretched people have no vessel to contain a supply; the kettle and broken jar are the only ones to be seen in these abodes of misery. … Even for the purpose of cleanliness a scanty supply is with difficulty to be had, and appears of such value that it is rarely thrown out until after being put to several uses. I have frequently noticed this filthy stuff remaining within the rooms, and have been invariably told that it was yet wanted. It had first been used, perhaps, to wash the man’s shirt, and some little white linen; it was then used to wash coarser things, and even again put in requisition to mop out the room floor, or stairs … The most offensive stench to be met with is that which emanates from these filthy suds.

One of the dangers associated with such poor water provision was cholera, although it was not until 1854 that the British physician John Snow traced an outbreak to a public water pump at Broad Street in Soho, thereby disproving the general belief that it was an airborne disease. Snow’s discovery was not fully appreciated at the time, and his detective work had to be replicated by Dublin Corporation’s analyst, Charles Cameron, who noticed in 1866 the high incidence of cholera amongst people who drew water from a pump in Duke Lane, off Duke Street. Cameron had the pump’s water tested, and it was found to contain sewage. The pump was closed, but not before over a thousand people had died from the cholera.

Cameron was one of a new generation of Victorian civic improvers’ in Dublin, and they were facilitated by reform of the city’s governance structure. In 1840, the self-perpetuating City Assembly had been replaced with a democratically elected council (albeit under restricted suffrage). In 1849, a Dublin Improvements Act gave greater powers to the council and paved the way for improvements in public services. And in 1852, John Gray was elected to the council.


John Gray was born in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, in 1816, where his father (also John Gray, a Presbyterian from Monaghan) was a farmer and excise officer. He was the third son in a family of ten children; his mother, Elizabeth Wilson, was the daughter of a local innkeeper and brewer. Gray attended Trinity College, Dublin, originally intending to enter the church, but switched to medicine, qualifying as a doctor and subsequently as a surgeon. While practising in North Cumberland Street hospital, he began to write for the Freeman’s Journal, later becoming its proprietor. He joined Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association, and was with O’Connell at the ‘monster meetings’ of 1843, which led to his arrest and conviction on charges of seditious conspiracy. Gray served three months in the Bridewell, alongside O’Connell, before their conviction was quashed on appeal to the House of Lords.

Gray later became involved in tenant rights, joining the Tenants’ League and standing for election to parliament representing Monaghan in 1852. He failed in that election (he would eventually be elected to Westminster in 1865, for Kilkenny), but succeeded the same year in being elected to Dublin Corporation, where he gained a reputation as an improver, being involved in the establishment of a fire brigade and of a new cattle market on the North Circular Road. In 1853 he was elected chairman of the waterworks committee;

the following year, the committee began working to develop an improved water supply for Dublin. A royal commissioner appointed to evaluate the different possibilities identified the river Vartry, rising in Calary Bog under the Sugar Loaf mountain in County Wicklow, as the ideal source.

John Gray backed the Vartry scheme and steered it through the Corporation, which then sought to have a bill passed in parliament empowering it to commission the necessary works. Gray and two councillors went to Westminster for the debate on the bill, and found themselves fighting attempts by the canal companies – which faced the loss of lucrative contracts – to resurrect alternative schemes. The debate ran over five weeks in the Commons, and a further six days in the Lords, before the bill was passed. Gray, pre-empting peculators, quickly bought land at Roundwood in County Wicklow that would be needed for the damming of the Vartry and the creation of a reservoir, and subsequently transferred it to the Corporation at cost.

The first stone in the new works was laid in 1862. The work was done by men using picks and shovels, and horses and carts for transport. A two-and-a-half- mile tunnel was dug from Roundwood to Callowhill, at a pace of four feet per week: the miners drilled boreholes with a hammer and chisel, packed them with explosives, detonated them, and then removed the blasted rock by hand. Gray was knighted on the occasion of the first waters being run into the Roundwood reservoir in 1863. The word ‘Vartry’ was inscribed on his coat of arms.

When John Gray died, in 1875, his funeral ‘assumed the proportions and character of a great national demonstration’, the Nation reported; the procession stretched for a mile and a half. A group came together in Gray’s ward of the city to promote the cause of raising a public memorial; they agreed a resolution that his work in ‘procuring for our city the blessings of a pure and abundant supply of water’ entitled him to the ‘enduring gratitude’ of Dublin’s citizens, and duly started a fund. Four years later, a statue of Sir John Gray was unveiled on O’Connell Street, where it stands still, just south of the Spire.

John Gray’s Vartry waterworks proved remarkably resilient. It failed once, due to drought, in 1893, and a second reservoir was subsequently built at Roundwood. Dublin’s water supply did not come under serious pressure again until 1935, when water was pumped from the Grand Canal to relieve the shortages. The following year, Dublin Corporation agreed to contribute to the development by the Electricity Supply Board of a hydroelectric plant on the Liffey, at Poulaphouca/Ballymore-Eustace in County Wicklow, which involved the creation of a reservoir from which the city could take water. In the 1960s, a reservoir was developed at the ESB’s dam in Leixlip to provide water to Dublin’s northern suburbs, which had until then been supplied by local water sources, such as wells. Today, Poulaphouca and Leixlip between them provide some 85 per cent of Dublin’s water; the Vartry provides a much reduced proportion, while smaller supplies are taken from the Dodder and from groundwater sources in Fingal and north Kildare.

Once again, however, Dublin’s water supply system is operating at capacity. This became generally evident in the freezing weather of January, when demand spiked due to householders running their taps continuously for fear of freezing pipes or hoarding water in anticipation of cut-offs, and when frost heaves caused extensive damage to the supply network; many districts of the city experienced water shortages or stoppages. But the problem is not new. A series of studies since 1996 have predicted water shortages in Dublin in the early decades of this century and identified the need for a new source, irrespective of the effects of climate change.

Dublin’s water-supply region includes the administrative areas of Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, South Dublin and significant parts of Wicklow, Meath and Kildare, and currently provides 540 megalitres of water per day to a population of 1.4 million. (A megalitre is a million litres. There are just over three megalitres of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool, so that daily supply is the equivalent of the water in 180 Olympic pools.) Dublin City Council estimates that this population will rise to 2.2 million by 2031 and (along with the region’s industry) will require a water supply capacity of 980 megalitres per day – nearly double the system’s current capacity.

To investigate options for a new water source for the city, the council engaged a consortium of two commercial entities – RPS, an international engineering consultancy firm, which acquired Ireland’s largest engineering consultancy, M.C. O’Sullivan and Co., in 2002, and Veolia, the world’s largest private water company – to conduct feasibility studies. Gerry Geoghegan, an engineer with RPS, explained the problems with the current system to me. ‘Dublin is being supplied by water in an unsustainable manner,’ he said. ‘There is no redundancy in the system. It’s operating beyond capacity.’ Water from the Ballymore-Eustace treatment plant flows into the Saggart reservoir in two pipes – ‘the most crucial two pipes in all of the country’. Basic maintenance and leakage repair can be done on the pipes, Geoghegan says, but ideally they should be replaced, which would involve cutting off the supply through them for a period. This can’t be done at present because the system can’t do without them. The Leixlip plant, he says, is currently producing 170 megalitres per day, but its sustainable capacity – the amount of water that can be extracted without compromising the viability of the source – is just 140 megalitres per day. Work in progress will develop other supplies to the maximum levels at which water can sustainably be taken from them, at which point they should then provide the city with a total of 630 megalitres per day. That will leave the system 350 megalitres short of the anticipated requirements for 2031.

In Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, water leakage is a significant drain on resources. What is known as ‘unaccounted-for water’ accounts for over 40 per cent of the water treated in the urban centres classified as ‘gateways’ and ‘hubs’ in the National Spatial Strategy, for example. In Tuam, Co. Galway, 76 per cent of the water supply is unaccounted for. In Dublin, leakage was reduced from over 40 per cent in the late 1990s to 30 per cent by 2007; according to RPS, it will be down to 20 per cent by 2031. Why not reduce leakage to zero, saving over 100 megalitres per day? ‘But it’s the whole thing that’s leaking,’ says Jerry Grant, managing director of RPS. ‘There are millions of leaks: there are 10,000 kilometres of pipes that are bolted together – they’ve mechanical joints as opposed to welded joints – so the whole thing is leaking. So there comes a point when it gets uneconomic to reduce and repair leaks.’ Aiming for leakage of 20 per cent is ‘best international practice’, according to RPS.

RPS/Veolia identified ten options for Dublin’s new water source. Seven of these involved drawing drinking water from various parts of the river Shannon; the others were a groundwater source in Fingal and north Kildare, the addition of a supply from the Barrow river to that from the Liffey at Poulaphouca to increase the supply to the Ballymore-Eustace treatment plant, and the use of desalinated sea water. Each of the options is still officially under consideration, but it is clear that neither the groundwater nor the Barrow option, nor both in combination, can provide anything like the additional water supply necessary for the Dublin region, although they may have a part in the eventual strategy. Desalination is much more expensive than any freshwater option, and is also considered more environmentally damaging, due to high energy use and the production of waste products. That leaves the Shannon.

The most direct – and hence the cheapest – of the Shannon options would be to take water from Lough Ree, just north of Athlone: this would involve the water being treated near Lough Ree and then piped 104 kilometres to Dublin, serving the Midlands en route. According to RPS’s estimates, this would produce water at a cost of 29 cents per cubic metre over the 25-year life of the project (giving a total cost for the project, over 25 years, of €576 million). There is enough water to provide the 350 megalitres per day required, but during dry summers this would require modification to the sluice operations at Athlone that control the water levels on the lake. Existing regulations stipulate minimum water levels for the lake in order to minimize flooding risk downstream while maintaining the viability of boating. In practice, Jerry Grant thinks, it would be too difficult to get consensus from the different interests relying on the lake to make the Lough Ree option feasible.

Lough Derg, downstream from Lough Ree, is slightly further from Dublin, and thus water taken from there would be slightly more expensive, at 32 cents per cubic metre (based on a total cost for the project, over 25 years, of €641 million). But the lake is significantly larger than Lough Ree, and management of water levels on it is far simpler. Lough Derg’s water level is controlled by the ESB’s hydroelectric plant at Ardnacrusha, through which 95 per cent of the lake’s outflow passes. Taking water for Dublin would reduce the flow of water through the lake by between 1 and 2 per cent. According to RPS, ‘minor modifications’ to the ESB’s electricity output to reduce the flow of water through the plant would compensate for any water removed for Dublin, so water levels on the lake would not be affected.

The other options involve variants on these. Water could be taken from Parteen Basin, just downstream of Lough Derg, which functions as a reservoir for Ardnacrusha: this would require a pipeline of 158 kilometres, and would cost €771 million. Alternatively, either the Lough Ree or the Lough Derg supply options could be combined with a water storage facility so that more water could be withdrawn in winter and less in summer, in order to address fears that water levels on the lakes would be jeopardized. These options involve storing the water in Bord na Móna cutaway bogs in the midlands, from where it could be piped to Dublin as needed, at marginally greater expense than being piped directly (€680 to €690 million).

In February 2009, RPS completed a period of public consultation on all the above options, and in late 2009 RPS made its recommendation of a preferred option to Dublin City Council. This was not made public and, at time of writing, is due for consideration by the Council, before being referred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The RPS preliminary studies indicated a ‘preferred environmental option’ of piping raw water from Lough Derg to a cutaway bog at Portarlington, Co. Laois. Though this would be slightly more expensive than piping the water straight to Dublin, it would have an added advantage of revitalizing some 1,000 acres of cutaway bog and allow Bord na Móna to develop an ‘eco-tourism’ facility around the new reservoir. I understand that this is the option that was recommended to the Council. If approved by the Department, this will then be subjected to the statutory planning process, which will involve a further, more thorough stage of environmental assessment.

The first public consultations on the proposals to pipe water from the Shannon to Dublin took place in 2006, and in April 2007, at a meeting in Athlone, local organizations and individuals came together to form the Shannon Protection Alliance, with the purpose of preventing the extraction of water from Lough Ree. The SPA subsequently linked up with local organizations in the Lough Derg area to lobby for the abandonment of the plans. It has commissioned independent environmental studies of the Dublin scheme, and based its arguments on a combination of the threat to the viability of the Shannon and the feasibility of alternative water sources (such as groundwater) and water conservation methods for Dublin. (RPS counters that these alternatives would not produce enough water, and that the extraction from the Shannon will not harm it.) The SPA’s primary objection, though, appears to be more fundamental: ‘Rivers are designed by nature and by God to serve the hinterland through which they course,’ said P.J. Walsh, the organization’s spokesman.

The SPA claims to have received direct pledges of support from local organizations and businesses representing over 100,000 people. Walsh believes it would be ‘political suicide’ for local politicians to support the Dublin scheme; with the Shannon flowing through or between thirteen counties, and its tributaries touching another five, Walsh counts the 83 TDs in those eighteen counties as ‘local’. And if political lobbying doesn’t work, there is a default strategy: ‘We will hold them up in the courts for about twenty years.’


‘There was this blow-in from Dublin,’ says John Acheson, sitting by a space heater in the corner of the old hall. ‘He’d just moved in, and all’s well, and then, one day, he turns on the tap in the morning, and there’s no water. So he phones the Council to complain. And the Council checks the records, and he’s not even on the water scheme! He’d a bore hole, and he didn’t even know it!’ Acheson and the men with him collapse into laughter. ‘City folk,’ he says. ‘They think they’ve a God-given right that water comes out of a tap when they turn it on.’

Acheson is a committee member of a group water scheme in County Cavan, covering the townlands of Castlerahan, Mountnugent and Munterconnaught. The scheme has 650 members, most of them domestic households, though some are farms and other businesses. Acheson’s wife, Winifred, is secretary to the scheme, a part-time, paid position, and a caretaker is also employed part-time. This is a new scheme; before its completion, last year, the locals drew raw water from their own, private sources. The Achesons had a spring well. ‘We assume it was good quality,’ says Winifred Acheson. ‘We never got sick. But we never got it tested neither.’

The south-eastern end of the area approaches Virginia in County Cavan, which is on the fringes of Dublin’s commuter belt, and the boom years saw a local explosion in house-building. This helped drive local efforts to develop a water supply. A group of interested locals collected €100 from ‘as many houses as would give it’ to fund a feasibility study and then approached the county council, which promised 85 per cent of the necessary capital expenditure. The scheme contracted to buy treated water from the council, and built two reservoirs to store it and a network of about 100 kilometres of pipe to deliver it to members’ gates. (Members are responsible for piping the water through their own land, to their houses.) There is a €1,850 joining fee (which compares favourably with the €3,000 or so that installing an individual well and pump would cost), and then an annual standing charge of €75, which covers a water allowance of 136 cubic metres per year per household. Additional water used is charged at 75 cents per cubic metre. From the council, the scheme receives 227 cubic metres per household for free, and is charged €1.10 per cubic metre thereafter. The scheme receives a subsidy from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government of €70 per domestic household (provided it meets certain criteria); the subsidy was devised to compensate rural households for the fact that people in towns don’t pay water charges. The upshot is that a family of five shouldn’t pay more than €100 per year, says Winifred Acheson, ‘provided they don’t have leaks’.

Last May, the scheme held its annual general meeting in an old dance hall outside Ballyjamesduff, nicknamed ‘the Blue Lagoon’. Twenty-five or so people, mostly men, mostly farmers, gathered to hear the chairman present the annual report, and then a talk from an officer of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, Brian MacDonald.

MacDonald warned the scheme’s members not to set the price of water too low. ‘Too many schemes still think that cheap water is the answer,’ he said; but it is essential for a scheme to keep its charges high enough to stay in surplus, lest costly repairs be required. He warned that the possible re-introduction of charges for publicly supplied water would cause the subsidy for rural schemes to be withdrawn. MacDonald also lamented the abandonment of certain water-collection practices in rural Ireland. In the 1960s, he said, schools and barns were automatically built with rainwater tanks on them. But then people ‘turned against it – it was as if rainwater was a badge of poverty’. On the Aran Islands, he recalled, people used to collect rainwater for drinking, ‘and the only filtration they had on it was auld tights. And they never had a water failure.’ ‘It’s crazy,’ he says, ‘we’re using water that’s been treated to potable standard to wash out farmyards.’

While MacDonald talked, a committee member seated at the head table, behind him, made hand signals at a man in the front row, who duly got up to check on the progress of the water boiling in the Burco. When he finished, everybody assembled around a small table at the side of the hall for tea and brack, and MacDonald traded water anecdotes with John Acheson and others. The following day, MacDonald took me for a drive to visit neighbouring water schemes in County Monaghan.

The morning started with a detour – ‘D’ya mind going to a wee country funeral?’ We stood outside a small, crowded church, situated atop a drumlin. Inside, the funeral of ‘a cousin of my wife’s people’ proceeded; outside, men talked quietly about the deceased’s family and the upcoming local elections. MacDonald introduced Brian McKenna, an elderly man who remembers fetching water from the local river by filling barrels and loading them onto the linkbox of the tractor.

The first rural water schemes were developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s; prior to that, the Irish state’s sole investment in rural water had been in the provision of water pumps for villages. In Stradbally, Co. Laois, for example, there was just one pump for the town, which, in 1943, was ‘condemned by the county medical officer of health’, as the local TD Oliver Flanagan told the Dáil. According to the census of 1946, just 8.6 per cent of rural homes had water on tap; in towns, which had benefited from state investment, the figure was 92 per cent. By then, the desirability of supplying water to rural homes was widely accepted, but the finance was lacking. In a 1945 debate in the Dáil, the then Minister for Agriculture, Dr James Ryan, argued that ‘We should aim at having the country house just as well equipped as the city house, so that the farmer will have proper lighting, heating, hot and cold water, proper sanitation and so on, so that if a girl has to make a choice between marrying a farmer and settling down in the country, or settling down in the city, she shall at least have the same amenities in the country as in the town or city.’

Later that year, Tipperary TD William Francis O’Donnell, a member of the farmers’ party Clann na Talmhan, put down a private member’s motion calling for a national survey of water resources, with a view to guaranteeing a water supply to all rural homes. O’Donnell described how, in Clonmel, drinking water was taken from the river, which was also used to deposit the sewage from the ‘fever hospital’, and described the lengths people went to to get drinking water in rural areas: ‘About five miles from Clogheen, which is mentioned in the “Life of St Declan”, there is a supply of pure water for about two hundred families. It appears that when the son of the pagan chief there accepted the Faith, the saint struck a rock and since then there has been a supply of water available, so that he did more than baptise the son of the chief. The people, however, have to travel five miles to avail of that supply.’

O’Donnell endorsed and quoted at length from James Ryan’s earlier comments, and added: ‘Our women folk are the finest in the world. They are second to none. I am sure you will all agree with me that they are glorious.’ The Dáil transcript does not record to what extent the other members agreed with him; on the substantive point, however, O’Donnell was defeated. For the government, the parliamentary secretary, Francis Ward, concluded: ‘I do not think it is possible to provide an adequate supply of pure water to every rural dwelling in the country. I do not think it is physically possible; I do not think that it is financially possible; and I am pretty sure that an adequate water supply to every dwelling in rural Ireland is not immediately available.’

In 1950, the then Minister for Agriculture, Fine Gael’s James Dillon, introduced a grant scheme to help farmers install a piped water supply; by 1959, 13,000 farmers had availed of the scheme. According to MacDonald, ‘It was hygiene in the dairy that pushed the issue of water for rural homes’. The Irish Countrywomen’s Association, in which his mother, Maemo MacDonald, was active, was a prominent advocate for water supplies for rural homes, in order to lighten the workload of rural women, and in the late 1950s it organized an exhibit of a modern bathroom and kitchen to tour rural fairs. ‘If he won’t put a bathroom in, don’t marry him,’ the ICA urged.

According to MacDonald’s own research, the first group water scheme was developed in 1959, in Kilbride in County Wicklow, near the Blessington lakes. Those lakes, which were created by the ESB as a reservoir for the Poulaphouca dam, had been supplying water to Dublin homes since the mid 1940s; but when a young Kerryman, Joe Collins, arrived in Kilbride as parish priest in 1957, the villagers were still taking their water in buckets from local spring wells. With a background in engineering, Collins set about trying to organize a water supply to the local houses from the springs. A site for the reservoir tank was donated, and Collins recruited a team of local volunteers for the labour. They dug a hole for a 9,000-gallon tank, with spades; a local farmer provided the sole tractor in the area to transport the cement and gravel for the tank; and local tradesmen made the mould for the tank, poured the concrete and fitted the pipes. Most of the local houses that joined the scheme invested in a new cooking range, with a water heater, to accompany their water supply, and the fee for joining the scheme included the supply of a Belfast sink.

Neil Blaney, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Local Government, subsequently rolled out a national water strategy, aiming to increase the provision of piped water in rural areas and improve the facilities available in the towns. He provided grants to incentivize group water schemes, and encouraged local authorities to collaborate with group schemes to provide water from local-authority-managed sources to remote rural homes. Developing this strategy in the 1962 Local Government (Sanitary Services) Bill, he explained: ‘Local authorities are equipped for the development of large sources, the construction of reservoirs, and laying down trunk mains. Private groups with the assistance of State and local grants and technical advice, can in many cases speedily and economically fill in the distribution network. By this means, the benefits of private initiative may in such cases be brought to bear on the larger type of scheme, and the resources of enthusiasm, voluntary labour and leadership in local groups and rural organisations may be tapped to the best advantage.’

An article in the Irish Times that year described the arrival of a water supply to Lisivigeen, ‘in the shadow of the famed Mangerton mountains’, in County Kerry. Each of the fifteen households provided one member for a committee, and the local headmaster was appointed secretary. A bank in Killarney provided a loan to cover the scheme’s costs until the issuing of grants from the Department of Local Government and County Council. A local diviner was employed to identify the source, and all labour thereafter was voluntary, including the operation of a compressor and pneumatic drill that had been borrowed from the county council.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Ireland was not unique in developing a community-run network of small rural water supplies; similar developments happened in other rural parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom. But across Europe, these supplies were typically taken over by municipal authorities and often consolidated into, or replaced with, larger schemes. In Northern Ireland, local councils were responsible for water services until 1973, when the Department of the Environment took over responsibility and formed a water executive to manage them. In 2007, this became a government-owned company, Northern Ireland Water Limited, which maintains 47 water treatment plants across the province.

In England and Wales, where there were over a thousand water providers in the 1950s, there were fewer than 200 by the early 1970s. There was further consolidation in 1973, bringing all public water providers together in ten regional water authorities, alongside a number of smaller, private water companies, some of which had existed since Victorian times. The water authorities were privatized by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989, and the water supply in England and Wales is now dominated by ten private water companies, alongside some surviving smaller companies. Scotland’s water supplies remained under the management of twelve local councils, which owned the relevant assets and resisted the privatization. These councils were later merged into three service providers, and in 2002, these were merged to form a public company, Scottish Water.

In Ireland, by contrast, fragmentation remains the norm: cities and towns are served by local authorities, and over 5,500 group water schemes provide water in rural areas. The 2006 census recorded that 173,000 homes received their water via the rural schemes. Most schemes operated using treated water purchased from a local-authority-managed supply; but a substantial minority, providing water to just under 50,000 homes, operated their own supplies. Nearly 150,000 homes still relied on their own water sources, such as a private well or borehole. Three thousand homes, almost all in rural areas, reported having no piped water.

In the early years of the group water schemes, the water being sourced was generally of naturally high quality, and there was no need to treat it. In the 1990s, though, many rural schemes started to come under pressure with the increase in population, housing and economic activity in the areas they served. The government launched a Rural Water Programme to improve standards in the sector. Schemes started contracting private water companies to build and operate water treatment plants and distribution networks, and hiring trained staff to manage the plants and distribution. One consequence of this was a move, in a great many schemes, towards charging for water used (as well as, or instead of, charging a flat membership fee). A combination of metering of individual households, telemetric bulk metering (which identifies leaks in the distribution network) and charging has generally had the effect of reducing demand on schemes by between 20 and 50 per cent, and sometimes as much as 80 per cent, according to Brian MacDonald. Demand falls dramatically once meters are installed, and then starts to climb again in the period before the first bills are issued, before dropping off again. MacDonald believes that charges should ideally be set so that each household receives a minimum adequate supply for free, with additional water sufficiently expensive to incentivize conservation.

Noel Carmody is manager of the largest group water scheme in the country, the Kilmaley–Inagh scheme in County Clare. The scheme moved to ‘universal metering’ in 2008, following the building of a new water treatment plant. In one district meter area, with just twenty-five houses connected, Carmody noticed that two houses were using as much water as the other twenty-three. In one of them, a leaking connection was identified and repaired. In the other, a washer had broken in an outside tap, and the tap was running constantly. The owner had rigged up a pipe from the tap to a wastewater manhole, and 2,300 cubic metres of water per year was disappearing down it. The cost to the group water scheme of treating that water was €713 per year. The cost of repairing the tap was 70 cents, for a new washer.


On 13 March 2007, a copy of new regulations dealing with the supervision of public drinking water facilities in Ireland landed on Darragh Page’s desk, and Page suddenly became more powerful. For the first time, the regulations gave the Environmental Protection Agency enforcement powers over local authorities; and as an EPA inspector, Page thus became an enforcer. That same day, Page got word about a likely outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Galway city, in an area served by the Terryland water treatment plant. The subject was familiar. Three years previously, Page and a colleague had conducted an audit of the plant, which comprises two separate waterworks, known as Terryland ‘Old’, built in the 1950s, and Terryland ‘New’, built in 1979. Under the regulations then in force, the EPA had no enforcement powers, and Page’s primary concern was whether the plant was monitoring its water adequately. It was. During the audit, Page was given a copy of a report that the plant itself had carried out the previous month. The report was a risk assessment for Cryptosporidium, a water-borne parasite that causes cryptosporidiosis, a disease that typically causes severe, watery diarrhoea; in people with pre-existing illness or compromised immunity, it can be fatal. In 1993 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis caused up to a hundred deaths, mainly of people with HIV or AIDS. The Terryland plant draws its water supply from Lough Corrib, and due to the large area of the lake, the presence of cattle (which often carry Cryptosporidium) on its shores, and the presence upstream of sewage treatment plants, the plant’s internal assessment identified a ‘very high risk’ of contamination by the parasite. Page’s own report included a brief section on the Cryptosporidium risk, and concluded that measures to reduce it ‘should be implemented as a matter of urgency’.

Cryptosporidium can be removed from a water supply by filters, and the Terryland Old plant used ‘pressure’ filtration, whereby the water is forced through sand and gravel. Following the 2007 Cryptosporidium outbreak at Terryland, the EPA conducted another audit of the plant, which concluded that the sand and gravel had not been replaced in over twenty years and was no longer filtering adequately. Armed with its new enforcement powers, the EPA issued a directive to Galway City Council to shut the plant down. (In the meantime, the council had issued a ‘boil water’ notice to the public.) To shut down Terryland Old while continuing to supply water, the council had to rapidly increase the treatment capacity at a new plant it had recently opened, at Luimnigh. Forty people were hospitalized in Galway for cryptosporidisis, and a total of 266 cases were confirmed by laboratory testing. The ‘boil water’ notice was rescinded in August 2007, five months after the initial outbreak.

In November of that year, the EPA audited a water treatment plant at Craughwell in south-east Galway, run by Galway County Council. The chlorination system at the plant had broken down, and as there was no 24-hour monitoring and alarm system in place, the caretaker had not realized there was a problem till the following morning. Untreated water had therefore passed through the plant and into the drinking water supply, and E. coli, a bacterium that can cause severe illness, was found in the water. (There were no reports of resulting illness, however.) The EPA had directed the county council to install a chlorine monitor and alarm; when the EPA audited the plant, it found these had not been installed. The agency sued the council, in the district court, and won; the council was fined €4,000, with costs granted against it. The council subsequently installed a temporary alarm system, and has since shut down the Craughwell plant.

The problem of contamination of public water supplies is not confined to County Galway. In 2007, E. coli was found in 52 (or 5 per cent) of Ireland’s public water supplies; this was an improvement from the previous year, when it was found in 77 supplies. In 2008, ‘boil water’ notices or other restrictions on water use were issued with regard to 53 supplies serving some 118,000 people. As of September 2008, 341 public water supplies were on an EPA ‘remedial action list’ Just 40 per cent of public water supply treatment plants were equipped with chlorine monitors and alarms, which are considered a vital part of water infrastructure safety. Of 64 supplies identified by the EPA in 2007 as having no treatment barrier to remove Cryptosporidium, just seven had installed an adequate barrier by the time of writing of the EPA’s most recent report.

In December 2009, the EPA’s budget was reduced by 18 per cent.


At 5 a.m. one winter morning in 1996, two young men sat in a car in a Dublin housing estate, watching a nearby house. The house was the home of a Dublin Corporation water inspector; the men were, respectively, members of the Workers’ Solidarity Movement, an anarchist organization, and Militant Labour, another left-wing political group. One of the men got out of the car and went behind a nearby bush to urinate. As he did so, the hall door of the house opened; the water inspector got into his car and pulled out onto the street. The Militant Labour man roared at his comrade, the anarchist zipped up and hurried back to the car, and the two left in open pursuit of the inspector. The inspector drove around for some time, apparently aimlessly; then, having evidently spotted his tail, he stopped at Crumlin Garda Station and then headed back home. The activists were members of the Dublin campaign against water charges, and they had, they believed, scored a small victory for the campaign. The inspector had been, they assumed, on his way to disconnect a household that hadn’t paid its water charges, doing so in the early hours in order to avoid alerting the family and neighbours; by following him, the activists had caused him to abandon the attempt and demonstrated that they would be ready to block any attempt to cut off a family.

Water charges had first been applied in Ireland’s cities in the 1980s, following legislation brought in by the Fine Gael–Labour government in 1983 to allow local councils to levy service charges. This followed the abolition of domestic rates by the Fianna Fáil government in 1977. The government had told the councils it would add the difference to their block grants, and that it would increase VAT rates in order to raise this income, but while VAT duly rose, the block grants to the councils did not; the purpose of charges for water and other services was to compensate councils for the shortfall. The water charge was not based on use – which was not metered – and so had no conservation intention or effect. It met widespread resistance, causing some local councils, including Dublin’s, to abandon attempts to introduce it. One of the leaders of the protests was Proinsias De Rossa, then a member of Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party, who was elected as a councillor in 1985 on an anti-watercharges ticket.

In the early 1990s, Dublin’s councils made another attempt to introduce a charge for water, and again met resistance led by left-wing activists. The movement gained momentum when South Dublin County Council moved to start cutting off people for non-payment of charges. Teams of activists were organized to reconnect people whom the council had disconnected. The council used to give residents notice that they were to be disconnected; once notice had been received, the activists would locate the stopcock on the water mains outside the house, cover it with an empty tin can, and fill the space around it with concrete. As Gregor Kerr of the Workers’ Solidarity Movement told me, this didn’t permanently disable the mechanism, as the concrete could be broken off, but it ensured that the council would not be able to disconnect people quietly, by night. Communities – and in particular the local children, playing in the street or in parks – were encouraged to look out for council waterworks vans, and to knock on doors when vans entered a neighbourhood.

Following the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in 1994, a new government was formed by Fine Gael, Labour and the Workers’ Party spinoff Democratic Left, now headed by Proinsias De Rossa. Facing pressure from the left to rescind the water charges, the government imposed a requirement that councils obtain court orders before disconnecting people. The anti-watercharges group responded by launching a membership drive, at £2 per member, to raise funds to fight cases in court. They employed a dual strategy of employing lawyers to ‘challenge everything and clog up the system’ and organizing popular protests to coincide with court hearings, Gregor Kerr recalls. At one hearing in Rathfarnham district court in November 1995, over five hundred people turned up to protest, and subsequently paraded through the village when the council’s case was thrown out of court.

The campaign had much success in thwarting the councils’ attempts to collect water charges and enforce disconnections. It stepped up a level following the death of the former Tánaiste, Brian Lenihan, in 1995. In the consequent by-election in Dublin West, in April 1996, Joe Higgins stood against Lenihan’s son, Brian Lenihan Jr, on an anti-water-charges ticket, and came within 252 votes of taking the seat. As the anti-water charges movement prepared to run more candidates in the next general election, the incumbent left-wing TD for Dublin West, Labour’s Joan Burton, looked particularly vulnerable. In December 1996 the then Minister for the Environment, Burton’s party colleague Brendan Howlin, announced new legislation in which domestic water charges would be abolished; they were replaced as a source of revenue for the local councils with the receipts from car tax, which was henceforth to be retained by the local councils rather than transferred to central government. The damage, though, had been done. In the general election of June 1997, Joe Higgins was elected to the Dáil for the new Socialist Party, topping the poll; Joan Burton lost her seat. Her vote had collapsed from over 8,000 to under 5,000. Water charges became a political untouchable.

As the economist Sue Scott, of the Economic and Social Research Institute, argued later, water charges were unpopular ‘for several good reasons’: they were not metered, and therefore constituted a flat, regressive tax that did nothing to promote conservation; the bill was infrequent and therefore large, and reportedly arrived at awkward times for some families, such as at the same time as back-to-school expenditures; and there was no adequate approach to dealing with vulnerable families. Rather than address these faults, Ireland abolished water charges altogether.

In the run-up to the 2007 general election, the idea of charging for domestic water usage remained taboo. Neither the Green Party’s manifesto, nor the programme for government the party subsequently agreed with Fianna Fáil, made any mention of it. At the same time, massive investment was planned for the water network: a total of €4.7 billion on capital investment in water and waste services over the lifetime of the National Development Plan for 2007–2013. This investment was intended both to increase the capacity of water and waste services and to bring quality in line with EU directives.

By mid 2008, Ireland’s economic crisis had completely changed the context in which both spending and taxation were being thought about and discussed. The report of the Commission on Taxation in September in 2009 summarized the argument for water charges: ‘Households do not pay for water, and there is no incentive to conserve, so that consumption per capita is about 30 per cent more in Ireland than in jurisdictions that do charge based on use. Those who use water irresponsibly are in effect subsidized by those who use it sparingly, and there is a constant need to expand the supply of treated water involving major and expensive engineering projects. It is unlikely that Ireland will be able to maintain this level of expenditure indefinitely from general taxation, and the outcome will be inadequacies in the quantity and quality of supply.’ The Commission recommended the phasing in of water charges over a five-year period, commencing with a flat-rate charge and, once meters were installed, moving to charges based on usage; it also proposed waivers for those unable to pay.

The Commission’s view was backed by the Department of Finance, which estimated average domestic water usage costs at €350 per household per year and recommended an initial flat rate water charge of €150 per household. The Department estimated the cost of installing meters in 1.2 million households to be between €250 and €300 million over five to ten years.

The Green Party met with Fianna Fáil in late September and early October to negotiate a revised programme for government to deal with the economic crisis. The programme stated: ‘We will introduce charging for treated water use that is fair, significantly reduces waste and is easily applied. It will be based on a system where households are allocated a free basic allowance, with charging only for water use in excess of this allowance. In keeping with the allocation of greater responsibility to local government, Local Authorities will set their own rates for water use.’

In the Dáil, opposition members tried to pin the government down on the proposed charges. The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, replied to questions from the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, on the details of the scheme. ‘No definitive or detailed framework for the implementation of the commitment can be spelled out at this point,’ said Cowen. ‘The policy considerations relate to the need for legislation to give effect to a commitment which must be examined … We are outlining in the policy the direction of our intentions.’

The Green Party’s Eamon Ryan, Minister for Energy and Natural Resources, was somewhat more forthright when quoted in the Irish Times as saying the installation of water meters ‘could take years’. And then the weather changed. On 25 January, amidst water shortages caused by the freeze, environment minister John Gormley announced a fivefold increase in the budget for repairs to water mains over the next three years. He said he hoped that the installation of domestic water meters would commence next year, and that water charges would be implemented with a free basic quota and charges for excess water used.

‘We are the only country in Europe where we don’t have water metering and where we don’t charge domestically,’ he said. ‘That needs to be reversed and reversed as soon as possible.’ Water charges would ultimately raise €1 billion per year, sufficient to cover the cost of treating public water supplies.

The earlier government decision to abandon water charges was ‘nonsensical and pretty spineless’, Gormley said.


For a week while researching this article, I washed from a bucket, used a dry toilet, and drank only bottled water, thereby reducing my daily water consumption from around 150 litres – the estimated average daily consumption in Ireland – to perhaps about 30, or less than goes down the average Irish toilet in a day. I had no choice, as it happened, for I was visiting the Western Saharan refugee camps in western Algeria, for another story, and there was no running water. In fact, there was barely any water at all: the camps are in an area of the Sahara known as the Hamada, one of the most arid, hostile environments on the planet. There are five camps, homes to approximately 150,000 people, the Sahrawi, who live in squat, single-storey houses built with mud bricks and (sometimes) cement. Outside the houses sit battered plastic and steel vats, with numbers painted on the sides: these are water tanks, and they are filled by a fleet of trucks, supplied by charities and foreign governments, that distributes the water from scarce wells.

These camps have been here for thirty-five years, since the outbreak of war in Western Sahara following the withdrawal of the colonial power, Spain, and the subsequent invasion of the territory by Morocco, which lies immediately to its north. The Western Saharan liberation movement, the Polisario Front, set up a government in exile in the camps and fought a guerrilla war against Morocco till a ceasefire in 1991. Since then, an uneasy peace has held, while negotiations on the territory’s status have repeatedly stalled. Meanwhile, Morocco has consolidated its control of Western Sahara, developing industry and promoting the resettlement of Moroccans in the territory.

The Sahrawi are traditionally a nomadic people, and though their homeland is desert, it was marked in the cultural memory by routes to water sources and oases. The capital, Laayoune, or, in Arabic, El-Aaiún, means ‘the springs’. Those Sahrawi living in Western Sahara have largely ceased to be nomadic; some of those in the camps maintain the tradition by travelling into the desert for periods of the year, but their movement is greatly circumscribed by politics, and they are largely dependent on humanitarian aid for food and water.

Though their plight is primarily a political one, it seems relevant that, while Morocco boasts of having developed an extensive water infrastructure in Western Sahara, using desalination plants, the country in which the refugees find themselves, Algeria, is one of the most vulnerable to water shortages in Africa. Current water availability in Algeria is 500 cubic metres per person per year, just half the minimum provision recommended by the World Bank. By 2020, this is predicted to fall to 450 cubic metres. Like its neighbours in the region, Algeria is hoping to tackle these water shortages by investing in energy-intensive desalination. Oil-rich and water-poor, these countries are effectively hoping to convert energy into water.

Globally, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 44 per cent of the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, live in areas subject to water shortages; in its view, the current global situation constitutes a ‘water bubble’ that is liable to be followed by ‘water bankruptcy’.

Water is a source of tension, and potential conflicts, between states in various parts of the world. Amnesty International recently reported that the average daily water consumption in the Palestinian territories was 70 litres per person, with some Palestinians barely getting 20 litres a day, the minimum recommended even in humanitarian emergencies. This compared with an average water use of 300 litres per day in Israel, which included water being used by Israeli settlers to fill swimming pools and water gardens. Amnesty said that Israel used more than 80 per cent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the main source of underground water in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

‘Water is a basic need and a right, but for many Palestinians obtaining even poor-quality, subsistence-level quantities of water has become a luxury that they can barely afford,’ said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera. Israel rejected Amnesty’s claims, saying it had exceeded its obligations to the Palestinians under a water agreement while the Palestinians had violated the agreement by illegal drilling for wells and improper treatment of sewage.

Israel was a protagonist in what British science journalist Fred Pearce has called ‘the first modern water war’, the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, in 1967. Ariel Sharon wrote in his autobiography that the conflict was initially provoked by Syria’s actions in digging a canal to divert the headwaters of the River Jordan, which supplied much of Israel’s water. ‘The Six Day War really started on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan,’ wrote Sharon. ‘While the border disputes were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.’ What could become the second modern water war, according to Pearce, simmers in Kashmir, where tensions underlie a treaty between India and Pakistan on the management of the river Indus, which originates in India but provides Pakistan with most of its water. That treaty was brokered in 1960 by the World Bank, following the 1947 Indo-Pakistani War and subsequent skirmishes over the Indus. Now, an Indian hydroelectric-dam project on a key tributary of the Indus has provoked Pakistani claims that they are violating the treaty, and that the dam could be used in any future project to withhold vital water from Pakistan, causing famine.

* *

There has been talk of water wars in Ireland, too. On the Shannon, P.J. Walsh promised ‘a fucking revolution’ if Dublin City Council proceeded with plans to extract water from either Lough Ree or Lough Derg.

‘The last great battle of Lough Ree was recorded in 903 ad, and we can assure those officials in Dublin that this battle will be fought just as hard,’ Walsh has said. ‘We won’t let them put as much as a straw into the river.’

Meanwhile, as John Gormley moves to introduce domestic meters and charges, Joe Higgins, now a member of the European Parliament, is mobilizing to launch a new anti-water-charges campaign. When charges were recommended by the Commission on Taxation late last year, he issued a warning: ‘Should the government attempt to reintroduce the hated water charges which we worked so hard to abolish in the 1990s, we promise them a major water war.’

One of those who won’t be rejoining the anti-water-charges campaign is Proinsias De Rossa – now, like Higgins, an MEP, but for the Labour party. De Rossa now backs water charges. ‘I don’t think we can be cavalier with usage of water. There needs to be a rationing of it,’ he said. (This, he adds, ‘isn’t the party view’. Labour is, officially, against water charges.)

‘There’s a big weakness in relation to how people conceive citizenship in Ireland: people regard themselves as consumers, and consumers have no responsibilities, they just have rights,’ he said. ‘I grew up with the idea that water was endless, but that’s not the case. Over the last ten years, I’ve become more and more conscious of the way in which water is used and abused in Ireland. There’s an attitude to water, like there’s an attitude to dumping. It goes from the kids who are allowed to litter streets to farmers who let effluent run into rivers. It’s a cultural thing.’

*Quoted in Our Good Health: A History of Dublin’s Water and Drainage by Michael Corcoran (2006), on which I have drawn heavily for my account of the career of John Gray.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 38 Spring 2010