Sunday, January 17, 2010

Water - too much, yet too little

It has been very strange living In Ireland in recent times.

Ireland is a country which even at the best of times experiences a great deal of rainfall. And during summer 2009 we had one of the wettest Summers on record.

Then in November the country experienced some of the worst floods in living memory.
This was followed - starting in mid-December - by a long spell of snow and ice.

Yet after all this we are experiencing great problems with our water supply. For example in Dublin many houses have been cut off for several days. In many others water supply has been greatly restricted.

What on Earth is happening?

Unfortunately heavy rainfall does not necessarily translate into a properly functioning water supply.

Like so much other infrastructure, insufficient attention has been paid to the maintenance of the water system in Dublin and elsewhere in the country.

Most of the underground piping that serves Dublin was laid in the late 19th century (when the population of the city was just a fraction of present levels). Though this served well for many years, the lead pipes are now very old and cracking in many places. So a considerable amount of water (instead of flowing through to household taps) leaks out earlier in the process.

Though some limited upgrading of this system has taken place in recent years, it was apparently done in a slipshod and careless manner (as so much construction work during the Celtic Tiger). Though local councils are slow to admit as much, it seems that regulations with respect to laying of new pipes during the housing boom were frequently ignored. Many have been inserted far too close to ground surface and have shown little tolerance therefore for the prolonged cold weather (such as we have experienced in recent weeks). So ironically it is in newly built areas that many of the worst problems are occurring. So this clearly points to pipes being laid "on the cheap" far too close to ground surface.

So it will now perhaps require extensive excavation to find the many leakages and breaks with this new piping (arising from the job not being properly done in the first place).

Another contributory problem in recent weeks has been the fact that many residents - in the desire to avoid pipes freezing over - have allowed taps continually run. However I do not honestly think that this problem has been as bad as the authorities are claimimg (who in many cases are deflecting attention from their own negligence).

There is another huge in-built problem. Dublin has grown enormously in recent years with the streets now very congested with traffic. Therefore proper upgrading of the system has been continually delayed to avoid the major disruptions that would thereby inevitably affect business. Though it should have been done many years ago (when conditions were much more favourable) this did not happen. And now because of the fear of ever increasing disruption, the issue is now continually put on the long finger.

Another problem relates to the financing of local authorities. In recent years Central Exchequer funding has been restricted with councils required to raise revenues from their own operations (such as waste collection). However the councils are always claiming that they are underfunded in an attempt to get Central Government to bear more of the costs.
So as it stands now there seems little chance that major infrastructural works will be instigated by the councils!

It has also to be said that in other parts of the country, water supplies in recent years have suffered increasing contamination (from slurry and chemicals draining from landfill dumps). For example this has been a persistent problem in Galway with many residents still having to boil their water before use.

However there are opportunities also arising from the present situation. The days of unrestricted water usage (even in a rain rich country such as Ireland) have come to an end.

The time is now ripe to install water meters in all houses. A certain minimum amount could be granted free with charging applied above that limit. This would create an incentive for people to economise on usage. It would also provide a big short-term business opportunity in an economy gripped by recession.

However all these problems represent a huge lack of forward planning.

We see frequently in the business press Ireland promoted as an ideal location for companies (needing a plentiful supply of water). However the fact remains that several businesses in recent weeks had to close down (for lack of water).

The same lack of foresight was in evidence in relation to our promotion of Ireland as a premier IT location where the basic need of building an adequate broadband infrastructure was never tackled.

However on a deeper level, problems with water shortages worldwide are likely to grow significantly in future years. My own belief is that we are finally beginning to witness "the inherent contradictions of capitalism".

The very nature of the capitalist system tends to foster short term opportunities for the private pursuit of profit over longer terms concerns with sustainability of physical and social resources.

Because of the - literal - exploitation of nature, key resources such as oil and gas are becoming increasingly scarce. Also climate change in large part, accentuated through unsustainable economic growth, is likely to create basic shortages with respect to food and water in many regions of the world. This is then likely to lead to significant problems of migration from affected countries creating huge political and social tensions.

A major change in attitudes is required. Though I would be optimistic that this eventually will occur, in the short-term major economic and social crises are inevitable.

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