Ireland Calling by John Spain
It’s raining, but we still need water
Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 09:13 AM
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This weekend, like the three weekends before, was cloudy and wet in Dublin. Yes there was some sun as well, but the regular heavy showers were a reminder that this is Ireland, not Portugal.
You can't depend on the weather here, my family said accusingly, as they looked longingly through holiday magazines. They blame me for condemning them this summer to a staycation.
We told you it would rain, they said. And they were right.
We had a few weeks of sunny weather at the end of May, while the kids were still in school. But there seems to be an unwritten rule here that once the school holidays start, the sun plays hide and seek with us for the rest of the summer.
It's part of the "charm" of the Irish weather. The grand soft day is code for yet another day when it never stops drizzling and raining. The tourists from scorched places like Arizona love it, and having been over there I can see why.
But it gets to us here sometimes. There's only so much mist, drizzle, rain showers and (like last weekend) torrential downpours from thundery clouds we can take. We put up with it in winter but we deserve a break in summer, and we rarely get one that lasts for more than a few days.
The childhood memories most of us have of golden Irish summers full of sun are false. It's just our memories playing tricks.
We're stuck out on the edge of Europe with nothing between us and the prevailing, moisture-laden winds coming in from the vast Atlantic. So of course it's wet here. Very wet.
So you might think that the one thing we could never run out of in Ireland would be water. But you would be wrong. And it certainly gets to us on long, damp weekends like the one just gone to be told that Ireland is running out of water fast.
The main problem is on the eastern side of the country, in Dublin and the surrounding commuter belt. Thanks to our rapid population growth and housing expansion in the boom years, the water supply in the Dublin area is, to quote one of the engineers in charge, on a knife edge.
We are only barely coping with demand at present, and any interruptions in the supply will mean water shortages and the taps going dry for hours at a time.
So the authorities have come up with a solution that is causing intense debate here at the moment. That solution is to pipe water across Ireland from the Shannon to Dublin.
Fishermen, tourist operators, environmentalists and in fact most people who live near the Shannon are opposed to the idea. They are outraged at the idea that "their" river should be used to solve Dublin's problem.
But people in Dublin tend to see the Shannon as a national resource that belongs to us all and ask why not?
The present proposal is being driven by Bord na Mona, the Irish turf board, which has spent decades harvesting the turf from the bogs in the Irish midlands. That resource is now running out, and Bord na Mona is looking at alternative industries like growing vegetables on the cutaway bogland. And it sees Dublin's water problem as a big opportunity.
What they want to do is create a vast manmade reservoir or lake in cutaway bogland in Co. Offaly, half way between the Shannon and Dublin. Water would be pumped from Lough Derg on the Shannon to the reservoir, held there until needed and then pumped as required the rest of the way to thirsty Dublin.
It's a plan that makes sense for another reason as well. The Shannon has always been prone to flooding during the winter months, and in recent decades as more building encroached on the river's natural flood plains the problem has increased.
This has been made worse by silting from turf-cutting, intensive farming and industry along the Shannon basin. Almost every winter now, there is another flooding crisis along the Shannon, with the TV news showing marooned animals, farmers being rescued from cut-off houses and nearby towns under a few feet of water for days at a time.
Draining the Shannon, one of the oldest unfulfilled promises made by politicians in the region, has become a joke.
So for that reason, the proposal to pump water from the Shannon to Dublin would seem to be a winner for both sides of the country. But of course, it's not that simple -- it never is here!
Some experts have already claimed that the summertime shortages in Dublin cannot be solved by extracting water from the Shannon in winter -- unless the water is going to be stored in the reservoir for months. And they say that the flash flooding that is a problem in winter on the Shannon is water that could not easily be captured -- it would be difficult to extract enough water quickly enough to prevent the flooding.
One can see the point. But it is hard not to feel that a system could be devised to do the job both to the benefit of Dublin and the Shannon region. Since flooding on the Shannon in winter is such a problem, there must be an answer for Dublin somehow in all that unwanted water.
Bord na Mona is dressing up its proposal with an idyllic picture of this vast reservoir in the midlands as a center for boating, fishing and all kinds of water sports, as well as a "water-based eco park," whatever that is.
But the people on the Shannon are not impressed, saying that their river -- and all the under-used lakes in the midlands -- already offers all that. They say that even a few inches of a fall in the level of the Shannon in summer would have disastrous environmental consequences, and that the authorities cannot be trusted on how much water they would extract.
Certainly the water needs of Dublin are enormous. Right now, somewhere over one-third of all the water in the system in Dublin is lost through leaks from the old pipes under the city's streets.
This is because the system dates from Victorian times or earlier. It was built by the British when the city was much smaller, and we have spent very little on it in the decades since then.
It's another one of the infrastructure projects we should have been doing when we had money during the recent boom. But we didn't. We blew the money instead.
Even worse, during the boom we allowed councils in areas all around Dublin to give permission for vast areas of new housing, without an adequate plan on how the water needs of these new housing areas would be met.
Industrial and office expansion in the Dublin region during the boom added greatly to the demand for water as well -- and this is a sore point in the Shannon area where they say the industry and office blocks could have been sited beside water supplies, instead of in Dublin where there was no water.
So what we are left with now is a water crisis. And we sit here in Dublin as the rain drips down, ruining another summer, and ask ourselves why?