Where did all the water go?

Celine writes*

Dublin, the vibrant capital of Ireland, is facing a pressing issue that often goes unnoticed by its residents: water scarcity caused by an alarming leakage rate in its aging water supply infrastructure. Every day, a staggering 37% of treated water is lost through leaks before it reaches the taps of Dubliners (Uisce Éireann, formerly Irish Water). The labyrinthine network of pipes beneath the city poses a challenge in identifying and addressing these leaks, as many of the pipes are old and damaged (The Irish Times 2020).

In 2018, the national leakage rate was 46%, but there is hope on the horizon. By the end of 2022, Dublin had managed to reduce the leakage rate to 37%, and ambitious plans are underway to achieve a national leakage rate of 25% by the end of 2030 (Uisce Éireann 2023). Despite this progress, the city’s water supply system faces intense pressure due to factors such as population growth, construction activities in the city center, and the natural deterioration of aging pipes (Kelly-Quinn, Mary, et al. 2014)

The roots of Dublin’s water infrastructure issues trace back to the Victorian era, particularly in the city center (Kelly-Quinn, Mary, et al. 2014). Many of these pipes, constructed in an age when leaking was an afterthought, now stand as potential hazards, especially lead pipes compromising the quality of drinking water (Kaur, Jasmine, and Aoife Gowen 2020). The recent surge in demand exacerbates the strain on an already beleaguered system, and while some improvements have been made in leakage management and water conservation, the system lacks the redundancy needed to weather increasing demands.

Some of the structural fragility of these pipes finds its roots in the history of Irish water charges. In a bid to provide equal service to all citizens, water in Ireland used to be free (Kelly-Quinn, Mary, et al. 2014). However, this seemingly noble policy led to unintended consequences. The absence of charges during cold spells prompted homeowners to let taps run continuously, resulting in short-term demand spikes and a significant decrease in water supply (Kelly-Quinn, Mary, et al. 2014). Additionally, the lack of a profitable business model hindered funds for maintaining water infrastructure, explaining why many aging pipes remain untouched.

Although water charges are now in place, the task of replacing old pipes remains a challenge (The Irish Times 2020). Dublin is currently grappling with the repercussions of severe winter cold spells that expose buried pipes to frost, causing numerous bursts and for example leaving around 40,000 consumers without water (The Journal 2023). Once again this crisis is exacerbated by the prevalence of deteriorating pipes, emphasizing the urgent need for infrastructural upgrades and heightened water conservation awareness.

This extreme water loss is becoming a larger issue due to climate change, as more frequent droughts challenge water supplies (The Irish Times 2020). Additionally the city’s growing population exacerbates the strain on the water system, demanding sustainable solutions to ensure a resilient and reliable water supply for the future (The Irish Times 2022). With these challenges in both supply and demand, it appears that Dublin is aimlessly losing vital water in its pipes.

Bottom Line: Dublin’s journey to overcome water scarcity and leakage requires a combination of infrastructure upgrades, water conservation efforts, and a collective commitment from its residents to use water more responsibly. The pursuit of a sustainable water future for Dublin is not just a necessity; it is a shared responsibility for the well-being of the city and its inhabitants.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

One thought on “Where did all the water go?”

  1. Very interesting post Celine! I absolutely had no idea about how bad the condition of the water pipes were in Ireland before. It seems as if though, with the implementation of the free water policy, the government kind of ignored/did not care to think about the maintainance costs of the water supply system at all. I wonder what led to that decision and how are they now planning on making up for all the money they lost in the years when the water used to charged nothing?

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