Opinion: reliable safe water and sanitation for all are necessary for public health, but climate change is making our water problems even worse

The frightening scenes in Clifden earlier this month, when flooding led to the closure of roads and bridges, are another reminder that climate change is making our water problems even worse. In its recent report on drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that the public water supply is not secure.

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, a report on the unprecedented flooding in Clifden in September 2020 after torrential rain

Water provision is a public health issue. For example, the European Commission has given Ireland a four-month deadline to solve a chemical contamination issue which affects the drinking water supply of 180,000 people. The commission said the continued exposure of people to trihalomethane was a health risk and a breach of the EU's Drinking Water Directive.

Too little too late

Irish Water needs to urgently involve the public in tackling our water problems. The utility responsible for our water supply and sanitation is forced to make annual appeals to households and businesses to conserve water, but it needs to do an awful lot more.

Currently, we turn on the tap and water appears. We release the sink plug and the dirty water flows away. To appreciate fully how we get our clean water, our relationship with our most precious resource needs to change. Centralised water systems are under significant pressure due to population increases, changing rainfall patterns, competition for water supply and the need to protect our natural water resources.

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on what happens to the waste that goes down the drain in your home

The failure of public policy, underinvestment in old infrastructure and the regular discovery of chemical contaminants (like trihalomethanes or disinfection by-products) and metals (like lead) in drinking water frequently make headlines. In the Irish context, it is hard to understand why disinfection across all supplies cannot be implemented as a matter of urgency. The EPA says it will take Irish Water 60 years to replace all lead connections at the current pace. This is ridiculous.

In the 19th century, doctors faced with the toll on human health demanded improvements in water supply, drainage, and sanitation. This transformed human health. Today’s message is not new: reliable safe water and sanitation for all are necessary for public health and benefit everyone. Populations exposed to water-related hazards today due to climate linked weather extremes and disease burden are likely to increase. Together, they will place further stress on health systems.

Poor water quality in Dublin

Heavy rainfall was blamed for notices banning bathing at Dollymount, Sandymount and Portmarnock in Dublin this summer.  Poor water quality meant that swimmers were asked to get out of the water. The beach at Merrion Strand in Dublin was closed permanently to swimmers because it had persistent water quality issues over the past five years. The two polluted streams, Elm Park and Trimleston, which flow on to the beach are polluted because of misconnections where domestic plumbing goes into the wrong pipe and goes directly into the stream; leaks, spills and overflows from wastewater collection systems and run-off from roads.  

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Mary Gurrie from the EPA on the findings of the Bathing Water in Ireland report for 2019 which examines the quality of bathing water at our beaches.

Irish Water says planned improvements to the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant will mean that periodic heavy rainfall, which is on the increase, will not cause further disruption. These examples of pollution in Dublin show that our water system is inter-connected, and complex. It requires adequate monitoring and better management.

The view from Clare

Homes and businesses in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, and surrounding areas, were left without water following a break in the trunk main this summer and Irish Water says repairs will not be completed until early 2021. We are told these leaks occurred because the infrastructure is old. Replacing the old water main is the solution but that depends on funding and on the utility’s priorities.

Farmers in the Burren area of Co Clare were in difficulties earlier this year after almost three months of virtually no rainfall. Met Éireann confirmed that May 2020 was the driest on record since 1850. The farmers struggled to supply sufficient water for their dairy businesses.

What needs to be done?

With the climate change trends we are seeing, it is unlikely that there will be improvements in water supply over the coming years. There is a growing need to move to a demand management approach for water in Ireland instead of a supply-based approach.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Fiona Regan on the low uptake of grants to fix potentially harmful lead pipes

Digital technologies are at the forefront of solving water quantity and quality challenges. Solutions such as artificial intelligence are helping to improve our understanding of how water infrastructure is managed and how to communicate with consumers on water quantity and quality. The adoption of digital water technologies is growing in response to increasing water security challenges. Central to water resource management are decisions about how to allocate resources across multiple users with increasing demand. To address this challenge requires an understanding of the quality of the water, how much water can be used in a sustainable way, and a picture of current and projected water demand from all sectors.

An obvious place to look for water savings is through water reuse. A programme that employs conservation techniques by private homeowners and businesses can significantly reduce overall water use. However, in Ireland we have no policy of fitting new premises with grey water re-use systems and no incentives to give consumers the drive to integrate the collection systems to their homes.

The government has made commitments to implement a green agenda. Funding Irish Water programmes is an important step here, but the utility needs to deliver as never before. The tide of climate change is rushing towards us.


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