FIXING our public water supply system will take a few generations because of the mammoth task facing Irish Water as it seeks to tackle decades upon decades of neglect. How it plans to go about this is outlined in the much-maligned organisation’s draft Water Services Strategic Plan (WSSP), which has been published for public consultation, with observations to be made (to irishwater.ie) before April 17th next.
This long-overdue strategic plan for the water services sector is welcome and credit has to go to Irish Water for its realism in how it proposes to deliver short, medium and long-term solutions to the myriad problems that have been allowed to accumulate unaddressed as a result of successive governments, comprising all of the main political parties at various times, starving local authorities of the funding needed to fix the problems. It was as if they were in denial for so long and, the longer the problems went on, the worse they got.
The most striking thing about draft WSSP is the length of time it is going to take to fix the various problems and, even at that, it will not provide a complete solution – just reducing treated water leakage to what they describe as ‘acceptable levels’ will take 25 years, while it will take at least ten years to remove lead piping from the public mains. This is due to two main factors: the vast scale of the problems and the lesser amount of money Irish Water can collect from the public following the government’s reduction in the amount of water charges it will allow the company to collect.
Obviously, in light of the latter capitulation for political reasons, Irish Water has had to revise its work schedules by spreading them out over a longer period of time so that it can operate within the budgetary constraints it places on the company. But, the big positive is that there now is a plan, albeit in draft stage at the moment, and it looks likely to go ahead in the immediate future.
The scale of the work is daunting with just under half (49%) of treated water currently being lost through leaking mains. Under the draft WSSP, it will take until 2021 to reduce it to about 38% and, by 2040, leakages should be down to what is described as an ‘economic level’ as per industry norms of around 20% – which still seems like a lot to be losing.
Improving water quality, especially for those whose supplies are subject to ‘boil water’ notices, is another of the main priorities as there are more than 23,000 people affected nationally and up to 900,000 people are served by 126 water treatment plants classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as being ‘at risk.’ The removal of lead piping from water mains is also necessary to deliver the treated water safely, but in addition to this, people whose plumbing has these lead pipes in their houses will have to replace them at their own (considerable) expense.
Effective treatment of wastewater is also a major part of Irish Water’s remit and its draft plan identifies a lot of work that needs to be done countrywide to ensure compliance in its discharge with environmental regulations. This is another area that local authorities had difficulties with due to scarcity of government funding over the years to comply with the ever more demanding EU regulations, which Ireland had to sign up to for the good of the environment, and apart altogether from the treatment plants identified as substandard, there are currently 44 sewerage systems nationally discharging raw sewage into our waterways.
There is no doubt that better-quality drinking water and effective wastewater treatment systems will benefit the country in terms of social and economic development and that the planned annual investment of up to €600m a year by Irish Water for the foreseeable future will pay a variety of dividends in the longer term. However, specific annual targets must be set out in a transparent manner and not a cent should be paid to anyone in Irish Water by way of a bonus unless these are fully achieved.
Ultimately, actions will speak louder than words and it is only through the former that the utility company will have any hope of gaining public confidence.