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).
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.