Who’s to blame for Dublin’s water blackouts

Future Shock: The Last Drop

Future Shock: The Last Drop

I am afflicted with the need to bore people about Dublin’s strained relationship with water. I do it a lot. In fact I do it to an olympic level, I could bore for my country about water and take gold in all disciplines. I’ve been doing it for a long time too, above is a picture of me blathering on about Dublin’s water supply in a Future Shock documentary back in 2007.

Most of the time I’m just boring but for a few brief days every year when there’s shortages of supply in the capital city I am an all knowing seer. A prophet, a futurologist even. Except I’m not because everything that I have been reporting for nearly ten years was identified as a problem 20 years before I ever stumbled upon it.

The problem in a nutshell is that for an uncomfortable amount of the year the demand outstrips what the system can comfortably supply. In the graph below you’ll see the red line (demand for water) matches and regularly exceeds the blue line (what’s produced).

Water Supply

The system is forced to work beyond its maximum capacity much of the time leaving no wriggle room, no margin for error and certainly no room whatsoever for unforseen climate/weather related events. The cities of most developed countries operate with a spare capacity of at least 20%, in Dublin that figure is officially 1% but is actually a minus figure when the system is working beyond what it was designed to do.

We can’t fix the problem anytime soon so “water blackouts” and constriction of supply will be a feature of life in the capital for a long time to come. But on the upside at least it is crystal clear who’s to blame.


Engineers have been saying for a very long time that what has happened was going to happen. The European Commission was telling us back in the 1980’s that we needed to invest in water services. But at a time when the rest of our European neighbours had the foresight to recognise that Water Rates was an evil necessity they should get on with implementing Bertie Ahern thought otherwise. He and Noel Dempsey returned from a European summit in Lisbon in 2000 with a “major political victory” – a derogation on the implementation of water rates.

Cogent arguments can be made that it was actually Fianna Fail’s scrapping of rates in 1978 or Brendan Howlin’s abolition of the Domestic Service Levy in 1997 that did in investment in water infrastructure. The real scapegoat is probably every government that ignored the engineers over the last 40 years. But Bertie deserves special mention for hitting upon the idea that we needed to be saved from this insidious Euro tax, so that we are now the only OECD nation without water rates . . . for the moment.

Now at a time when households and businesses can least afford it the nettle has to be grasped anyway, but we’ve 20 years catching up to do on that lack of investment. So we’ll be paying through the nose for something we’ve foolishly got used to thinking is free. And we’ll be getting a really poor quality service too until the fruits of that investment will be seen ten or more years from now.

You can listen to a podcast of my report on the specific difficulties being encountered at the Ballymore Eustace treatment plant here. If you’re Bertie Ahern, Brendan Howling or even Joe Higgins you can reflect on a picture of this statue on O’Connell Street.


That is Sir John Gray. You’ve probably never noticed him nestled in between Daniel O’Connell and Jim Larkin. The cities fathers decided to commemorate him because in the middle of the 19th century he had the foresight to realise that Dubliners couldn’t continue to source all their drinking water from the Liffey and the Royal and Grand canals. He set about raising funds for the Vartry Reservoir at Roundwood which to this day supplies about a quarter of Dublin’s needs. He was a contentious figure but for this act of statesmanship, public service and timely addressing of a looming problem he is now a permanent part of Dublin’s landscape. Can I make my point any clearer.


Filed under Climate Change, Drivetime, Environment, Politics, Society

9 responses to “Who’s to blame for Dublin’s water blackouts

  1. Seamus warren

    A very good report and to the point. Mr. Gray felt sorry for the plight of Dubliners as so many did not have running water. At this time Dublin was seen as worse then Calcutta India by the conditions we lived in. He sold the reservoir to the ESB for its original coatings before he died.

  2. Interesting article and begs the question, considering the amount of rainfall we enjoy in Ireland, when will we as a nation start actively promoting rainwater harvesting? An Irish company (ours!) has developed and patented a new technology that enables home-owners to treat and store this water for drinking and other use in their own homes. This system can be used in combination with mains supply.

  3. Ciaran Bolger.

    When you make statements ensure you can back them up with true facts, everything you have said is incorrect, I admire you as a journalist but please don’t act like a blogger that is persuaded by political affliction.

  4. Sadie Jordan

    Philip, You are a great reporter but this time I think you should have another look at History. Who got rid of the Water charges ?. Also I understand that our “Water Crises ” in Dublin at the moment is caused by the fact that our water is TOO CLEAN !

  5. Ciaran Bolger.


  6. Meabh Boylan

    Philip, thanks for this piece- very interesting. I would love to know what your opinion is on dealing with the water shortages.

    In Ireland we use our precious drinking water to flush toilets and wash cars and to do lots of other things that stored rainwater would be ideal for. Toilet flushing makes up a huge amount of the water we use on a daily basis; in schools for example up to 90% of water can be used in toilet flushes and urinals on a daily basis. I imagine this would be the same for many other institutions. In your estimation, if we were to invest in retro-fitting buildings to store and use grey-water, would the difference in consumption, be enough to avoid having to steal water from another waterway in Ireland?

    Also Philip, could you (or perhaps another reader) direct me to somewhere that lists the quantities of water that are currently being used by the big multinationals in the GDA e.g. Intel and HP on a daily basis? As I type, a brand new water-pipe is being laid in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. Apparently this is to carry a fresh supply of water from Wicklow to Intel! Who knows about this? How are Intel getting water, instead of the public in the GDA? Why isn’t there debate and discussion about this, and is it being highlighted in the public arena at all? How is it that corporations can essentially buy our landscape and ecological systems in this way?

    The notion of diverting Shannon waters to the GDA seems to be the next most talked-about solution to the water “shortages” at present. In my opinion this would be just another short-sighted placation to be pushed through by the Dail to cope in an utterly unsustainable way with the “shortages”. We can live without jobs and euros; we cannot survive without clean water and fertile river banks. But perhaps I am being naive here? Do you think draining the Shannon is the solution then?

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  8. Hello! I’m a canon fan.
    I would like to thank you for this great blog post.
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  9. thomas been

    There is no water in parts if not all of celbridge? Anyonre know why?

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