Ireland is still drowning in despair


What happened with the water was that the extremely cold weather all over Ireland at Christmas made pipes freeze and the ice inside burst them. It was the coldest December here in living memory.

When the thaw came after Christmas and the temperature jumped 10 or 15 degrees in a single day, the ground in some places shifted and more pipes split. The result was that so much water was leaking away, taps simply ran dry.

In other areas, including large parts of Dublin, supplies had to be cut off night after night to allow reservoirs to recover while repair crews desperately worked on the pipes.

The authorities said it was a once in 50 year event, and tried to pass it off as an act of God that could not have been prevented.

But the truth is more mundane, and it says a lot about the way money here was blown during the boom years instead of being spent on the right infrastructure.

In the Dublin area there are around 800 miles of water mains, the big main pipes that carry the water from the reservoirs and distribute it around the city. At least 80% of the 800 miles of water mains in Dublin is at least 100 years old; they are the old cast iron pipes that go back to Victorian times.

The system was built by the British and given to us at independence and it served us well for years. But it has been deteriorating fast in recent decades and is now in urgent need of replacement.

We've known this for years. The system is barely coping, it has been leaking heavily for a long time and the brittle old pipes are vulnerable to the kind of problems caused by the recent record cold spell.

A few miles of water mains have been replaced in some years recently, but at the rate we're going it will take forever to modernize the system with new piping. In fact last year, no water mains were replaced at all.

It's a perfect example of how work that desperately needs to be done somehow was overlooked during the boom years when we had money to burn. It's the same in other cities and towns here.

Replacing water mains, of course, is a long term project with a long term pay-off which was not the style of the Celtic Tiger at all. Oh no. We wanted an instant bang for our buck.

It's a good thing the empire building Brits were here to construct the magnificent Victorian system we have or we might not have water at all.

Another aspect of the boom also made the recent water situation here worse. It's not only that we did not replace water mains. The problem is that a lot of the new housing estates built during the boom here had less than impressive water piping and plumbing.

Builders in a hurry to rake in the profits ignored local laws on how deep supply pipes from mains into houses and apartments were supposed to be. They should have been deep enough to be well below the frost line, but in the recent cold snap pipes in new estates all around Dublin froze.

All of which is very depressing. It's not just having to put up with water shortages. It's the knowledge that we're largely responsible for the mess ourselves.

Even more depressing is the thought of what is to come. There's no money left to spend on upgrading the water system or on a lot of other essential things we should have been doing when the economy was booming.

There's no money because for the foreseeable future a huge chunk of our diminished tax revenues will be eaten up paying back the EU and the IMF for loaning us the money to stop Ireland imploding.

Apart from wreaking revenge on Fianna Fail, people here do not expect the upcoming election to achieve much. There is almost nothing that the opposition parties Fine Gael and Labor, who will be in government in a few months, can do to improve the situation.

Their economic policies are miles apart, which will make progress difficult, and we are where we are, as the politicians like to say. We're up to our necks in debt and there's nothing we can do about it except tighten our belts and pay up.

Well, almost nothing. There is something we could do that would transform the situation. But it's something that is likely to be far too radical for the next government.

All will be revealed in this column next week.