I just spent ten days “on holiday” in Ireland. You have probably heard Ireland referred to as “The Emerald Isle” and from what I have seen these past two weeks it is very apt appellation. I drove through a land of green pastures, hedgerows, forests, and dense thickets. My schedule put me just ahead or just behind gentle rains allowing enjoyment of Ireland at its clean and shining best.
After one particular day of white knuckle thrills driving on the wrong side of narrow, winding back roads, I opted for some quiet down time on the Internet. I was curious to see if a place so lush and green faced any of the water management challenges that confront us in the U. S. Curiously enough Ireland is facing some significant water management issues albeit of a different sort and for different reasons than the American Southwest.
Water, Water Everywhere…
Ireland gets a lot of rain. Atlantic currents and the jet stream conspire to leave the west wetter than the east which can lead to a geographic imbalance to the supply. Of the resulting natural water resources only about 2% is actually taken for human use. Of this, approximately three quarters is used by industry, a tenth for agriculture, and the balance for domestic consumption. Estimates suggest that 70% to 80% of water used for domestic drinking water is collected from lakes and rivers with the balance from wells or springs. Water quality is, in general, very good however there have been isolated incidents where domestic supplies have become polluted. Of those, the pollution has generally been of a biological nature and not heavy metals or toxic chemicals.
Water to commercial users is metered and paid for by those customers. Water for residential users has largely been provided free and un-metered since 1997. The water system is paid for through collected national income and sales taxes (VAT) that are then distributed back to various local agencies that manage and maintain the public water distribution networks. Many rural areas are served by private water schemes which also receive support grants from the government.
The Value / Cost Disconnect
As a result of the above, most users see no direct relationship between the value of water delivered and the true cost of its delivery. Thinking water both abundant and free, it is not surprising that the per capita water consumption tends to run significantly higher in Ireland than in the UK or other European Union (EU) countries. Further, this value / cost disconnect looks to have led to the deferring of maintenance and upgrades across significant portions of Ireland’s water treatment and distribution infrastructure. The result has been a gradual deterioration of the water delivery system to a point where as much as 47% of its through-put bleeds out through leaks. Aside from concern over the high amount of wasted water, one has to acknowledge that the resulting inefficiencies place an increased burden on water treatment capacity and wastes considerable energy in the treating, pumping, and distribution of the 47% that spills uselessly from the system.
Weather Events and Climate Change
Periods of unseasonably high temperatures can diminish lake and river water levels. Coupled with corresponding increases in consumer demand such events have resulted in public agencies being forced to institute the aquatic equivalent of “rolling blackouts” where water supplies to whole communities are shut off to conserve water across the overall system. Similarly, the fragile condition of the water infrastructure has suffered severe damage during periods of abnormally cold weather resulting in frozen pipes and frost-heaved ground which has pulled portions of some municipal systems apart. This has led to many areas being without water for extended periods of time as crews labored to locate and fix leaks. Studies predict more frequent and extreme weather events in Ireland’s future.
On the bright side, the Irish have many things going for them: (a) An indomitable spirit, (b) Great engineering and technical skills, (c) a good understanding of the problem confronting their nation, and (d) Guinness! Already wheels are in motion to take control of the situation through a multi-tiered approach involving the following:
- Reduce system leakage through massive investments in water distribution infrastructure repair and upgrades
- Introduction of “Sustainability” and “Water Conservation” as topics into the national conversation
- Addressing the potential impact of climate change by incorporating sustainability strategies into national development programs
- Improve waste water treatment capacity and quality aimed at increasing recharge volume
What you can Measure You Can Manage:
Lastly, in 2010 legislation was reintroduced to meter and charge residential customers for water use above an initial free allotment. If this is implemented it will be significant in that a broader and more thorough method of system metering will help Ireland gain a better understanding of consumption and leakage. With such data all future water conservation efforts can be surgically targeted toward the most wasteful and less egregious to the broader population.
You never miss the water until the well runs dry – Irish proverb