Opinion: while significant investment is needed to repair our water infrastructure, there is an urgent need for water stewardship and conservation

"Only winter brings really pleasant weather", wrote Albert Camus in The Plague about the Algerian city of Oran. In Ireland, we are now looking at the impact of warmer and wetter, weather as a result of climate change. Rainfall is a key indicator of climate change and it is likely that heavy rainfall will increase in a warmer climate and be produced by fewer, more intense events. This could lead to longer dry spells and a higher risk of floods. 

But let us not allow climate change discussion to distract from the requirement for the government and Irish Water to tackle a failing infrastructure and start to manage the problem with solutions rather than aspirations. Big ideas such as channeling water from the Shannon to the greater Dublin area will not solve the problem of water shortages. There must be a cohesive plan that has conservation and re-using water at its centre. 

Yes, Ireland has abundant water supplies. It has surface water resources of more than 70,000 km of rivers, 12,000 lakes, 850 km2 of estuaries and 13,000 km2 of coasts. Groundwater occurs nearly everywhere providing 20 to 25 percent of water supplies nationally. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Irish Water general manager Eamon Gallen discusses the water restrictions in place

Ireland’s temperate maritime climate is influenced by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the presence of the Gulf Stream. It has an average number of wet days (days with more than 1 mm of rain) of about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts to about 225 days per year in parts of the west. The west gets about 250 millimetres (mm) more rainfall than the east and mountain regions another 1000 mm rainfall per year. 

So what's the problem?

Our freshwater ecosystems are under increasing pressure. There is less to go around than ever before and what’s left is getting dirtier as we fail to protect our rivers, lakes and streams. Given that we all depend on freshwater, the global water crisis is important to all of us, including the private sector. 

This year Ireland saw very different conditions in winter and summer that has led to water quality issues and water shortages. The problem is the quick-fix mentality. In arid countries across the world, water conservation is at the centre of planning and policy because it is recognised as a critical resource. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Environment and Agriculture Correspondent George Lee reports on the nationwide hose-pipe ban 

What can we do?

We need to start talking about water stewardship. This is an opportunity for communities, business and NGOs to come together to find solutions to our shared water challenges. Water stewardship is about business understanding water scarcity and pollution, and taking action to help ensure that water is managed sustainably as a shared, public resource. 

Companies worldwide realise that water is a critical to their business operations and the lack of access to sufficient water quantities or quality is posing a risk to a growing number of companies. Water stewardship means that a company can manage their own water use in line with the needs of communities and the environment. Businesses need collaborative action with other businesses, governments, and communities influencing the policies that determine how water is managed.

Coming down the track

Yes, we are experiencing climatic effects in Ireland that impact on water supplies and flooding. And, yes, significant investment is needed to repair the leaks in the distribution infrastructure and to repair faulty water and wastewater systems. Water usage needs to have a value. Industries including agriculture require water supplies and adequate supply poses significant risk so these business sectors need to play a key role in driving the stewardship message in Ireland.

From RTÉ Archives, Colm Connolly reports for RTÉ News on water shortages in July 1983

It costs a significant amount to treat water for drinking and to treat wastewater. However, incredibly, it is extremely difficult to find figures for the cost of treating a litre of water because the cost differs depending on the water source and requirements for treatment. Some upland areas, for example, require very little treatment whereas river water requires at least secondary treatment.  

As tax payers, we should demand policy that means we don’t treat water for drinking in the same way as we treat it for non-essential uses. Furthermore, irrigation systems for agriculture as well as drainage systems to help prevent flooding should be part of water management strategies. There is currently an opportunity to expand Irish agriculture. This is critical for Ireland’s growth, but genuine water stewardship must be part of the strategy. And agri-business must play a significant role in this stewardship.

Water stewardship for all

Indeed, everybody can play a role in managing water resources:

In your daily life:

  • Install a low-flow shower head;
  • In older toilets a water saving device can be installed, and, in a new toilet make sure it is low or dual flush;
  • When buying a new dishwasher/washing machine, check the water efficiency rating;
  • If you are building a new house, consider a water collection and re-use option in the same way as you do an energy efficiency option; 
  • Use rainwater collection units for your garden - there is no need for expensive cleaned water here.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, Irish Water makes urgent appeal to public to conserve water

All businesses need to use rain-water collection systems and practice water efficiency management as they do with energy. Multinationals that use large volumes of water, such as Intel, need to play a key role in the water stewardship discussion.

There is a compelling economic case for investment in water. Global economic watchdog OECD points out that the benefits from strategic investment in water management could exceed hundreds of billions of dollars annually.  We need to wake up and implement a cohesive plan that prioritises conservation and re-use of water - for all our sakes. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ