Irish Water needs to address a wider set of environmental goals than simply water treatment and leaking pipes when spending tax payers money

In Cliff Taylor’s recent Irish Times article, “Water deal thwarts new way to raise money for infrastructure“, he summarizes his article by saying that the likely compromise between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will either mean less money for water or less for other areas of economy.

How will any future investment in Irish Water be spent? I think that we should be looking in a more broader way at longer term resource issues and the more sustainable goals of water and waste water infrastructure than is being done at present. We need to think about wider and more long-term sustainability issues before investing further. The predominant short term concern in the media and among the public is centered on getting free water and having safe water to drink. There is a smaller awareness again on the cost to treat the waste water pollution, simply because there is as yet no separate charging system for measuring the level of domestic waste water pollution discharges. Without regulation and without measured charges, domestic waste water pollution will remain as high as ever.

Our thinking is still excessively focused on “treating” drinking water and waste water. The cost of “avoiding” waste water pollution on the other hand however will be cheaper in the long run than “treating” it inadequately. This is what we should do. Recovering and reusing the nutrient resources in a cleaner manner from waste water, than we do or propose to do at present, should be one of our priorities. This in turn will also be the best and the cheapest “long term” strategy to protect our water sources and to keep the cost down for running our national water system.

The more holistic agenda would include the following:

  • Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
    There is an urgent need to minimize the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from the way we supply drinking water and the way we treat waste water. The energy that is used and the greenhouse gas emissions that arise are not considered as a priority when planning new water infrastructure in Ireland. There are certainly viable options to achieve this for many specific situations, but we stubbornly still refuse to implement them.
  • Reduce our domestic demand for water
    Apart from leaking water mains there is also a need and a great opportunity to reduce domestic water demand in the first place. This kind of thinking however is not being applied in any updates to our building regulations. Again there are options that households can implement but again there is not enough effective interest at government level to encourage this.
  • Recycling nutrients such as phosphorus from waste water to crops without adding toxic metals
    Because it is a finite resource we need to recover and recycle phosphorus to grow crops, but we need to do so with minimal toxic metal contamination. Our culture is still to mix everything together in one waste pipe or in septic tanks first. This mixing of everything in the septic tank however will result in toxic metals from the domestic copper pipes or from personal care products being combined and incorporated in the sludge along with the nitrogen and phosphorus. This practice is un-sustainable and in the long term will become un-safe. Toxic metals will inevitably build up gradually in our soils or in the food that we grow. We certainly need to return nitrogen and phosphorus to crops, but we need to this in a way that is as free as possible of toxic metals.
  • Switching to the front of the pipe rather than the end of the pipe
    For years the thinking for solid waste management was centered on providing for more landfills and incinerators. At last the focus is soon to switch to measuring the weight of three bins for non recyclables, organics and recyclables; at each home. Instead of managing the problem at the end, this will encourage home owners to think more about avoiding making waste at the start. Furthermore under the circular economy model the focus will change to extended producer responsibility. Likewise I am suggesting that we now should “avoid” making waste water pollution at the start also, at the “front of the pipe”. We cannot afford to pay money endlessly for “end of pipe” treatment systems. Just as it is happening with solid waste, homes must now also switch to methods that “reduce” the demand for mains water and to “avoid” making waste water pollution. Instead of investing only in a centralized “Irish Water” system Cliff Taylor should be calling for a Government deal to invest in de-centralized “Home Water” systems.