Ireland is surely one of the greenest countries in the world, but its management of freshwater in recent times has been anything but green.
Some 41 percent of the nation’s drinking water leaks out of delivery pipes – twice the UK average. That’s a costly loss given the expense of treating and pumping that water to the nation’s 4.6 million people.
Household water demand per person is estimated to average 102 gallons (386 liters) per day, double or triple that in other European countries and about the same as in the United States, where national usage is driven up by irrigation of large suburban lawns, especially in the drier west.
And with Dublin now running short of water, most of the talk about filling the gap focuses on capturing more supply from the Shannon River or other sources. There’s been relatively little mention of conservation or curbing demand.
Much of this excess and waste traces back to a simple and perhaps startling fact: In Ireland, households do not pay for water. It is free, no matter how much is used. And no one knows how much any particular household uses, because Ireland – alone among European countries – does not meter water usage.
But change is afoot in the Emerald Isle.
Last week, I visited Ireland at the invitation of the Mayo County Council’s Enterprise and Investment Unit to participate in an event at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology called Clean Water 2040: From Local to Global, What is the Future of our Water Resource Management?” The forum was part of Ireland’s National Science Week. And while I spoke on the global water challenge on behalf of National Geographic and our Change the Course partnership, the audience of water professionals and the public gathered there in the western city of Castlebar was quite keyed to the national reforms under way– in particular the new Irish plan to install more than 1 million water meters by the end of 2016 and to begin charging for water.
Primary responsibility for that transformation falls to Irish Water, a new enterprise that consolidates the water services provided by 34 local authorities. Headquartered in Dublin, but with eight regional offices, Irish Water will work to fill a backlog of investment needs – including leak repair – that has resulted from more than a century of underinvestment in water services.
“Irish Water is on track to deliver the key milestones in one of the largest reform projects in the history of the Irish state,” said John Tierney, Irish Water’s managing director.
The first meter went in the ground about three months ago, on August 12, in Kildare, Tierney reported. Dublin got its first meter on October 13. All together, nearly 30,000 meters have been put in place.
For consumers accustomed to free water, the rubber will hit the road when billing begins, scheduled for the first quarter of 2015.
Particularly in hard economic times, the new fees may rankle the public. But the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions conditioned Ireland’s debt bailout on the institution of a more self-sustaining water revenue structure – a sensible request, though perhaps painful in a country where unemployment tops 13 percent.
But as Professor Frank Convery, senior fellow with the University College of Dublin (UCD) Earth Institute and chair of the think tank Publicpolicy.ie, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times, “Unless we introduce coherent and effective water pricing, and use it to help us all become water savers, we are doomed to a decade of continuing periods of water rationing with all the costs, economic and social damage and inconvenience that this will entail.”
Irish Water’s Tierney estimates that the nation’s water systems need about €600 million ($812 million) per year in capital investment to fix leaks, upgrade infrastructure, and generally get on a more sustainable footing.
It bothers Tierney that so much water brought up to drinking quality through expensive treatment methods seeps out of leaky pipes or otherwise gets squandered.
“If you waste water after having gone through that (treatment) process, it’s a sin,” Tierney said to the group gathered at GMIT.
Sean Corrigan, manager of the Kilmeena, Ballycroy and Killeen Group Water Schemes in County Mayo pointed out that much leakage may be occurring in homes, not in the distribution network, and until metering and pricing motivate households to look for leaks, the problem will go uncorrected.
For my part in the day’s discussion, I recounted the conservation success of Boston, Massachusetts, a city similar to Dublin in climate and size, and which faced a like need to fill a gap between supply and demand back in the mid-1980s.
Like Dublin today, Boston back then was considering expanding its supply by diverting water from the Connecticut River and storing it in the Quabbin Reservoir. Instead, pushed by conservation and citizens groups, the state water authority invested aggressively in demand management – including leak repair, pricing, education, and retrofits of faucets and other home water fixtures.
From its peak, greater Boston’s water use has dropped 43 percent. Usage today is back where it was fifty years ago. And the conservation strategy cost about half as much as the river diversion would have, saving ratepayers money and the river from ecological harm.
It’s a success Irish Water might take to heart.
Tierney said he hopes to see Ireland become one of the most water-resilient countries in the world. “
That’s a prize worth fighting for,” he said.
But winning it will take a good deal of water reform – and metering and pricing are the right places to start.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.