Water, water everywhere... but is it clean?
The left wants to scrap water charges, and the right is sceptical about climate change. Is there a populist threat to the environment?
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
Never has a divide been more keenly felt than that between right and left-wing politics right now, but what are the implications for the environment? Here at home, the left wants to scrap water charges, but where does that leave our crumbling water infrastructure, poorly maintained treatment plants, water pollution and regular 'boil water' notices in country towns? On the other side of the coin, we've got the global emergence of an extreme right-wing movement rejecting the premise of climate change as a load of twaddle. Heads they win, tails you lose.
"We have no right to gamble with the fate of future generations," said outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at last month's conference on climate change in Marrakech.
But while successive governments kick to touch on the political football that is water charges, it looks like Ireland may have a lot to answer for.
Claire Malone, a mother-of-four from Ballintubber, Co Roscommon, lived with a 'boil water' notice for four years until a new water treatment plant was installed a year ago.
"I had to buy water to make babies' bottles," she says. "Then when the notice was lifted last year, I thought great, at last we'll have clean water on tap. But now we're frequently cut off with no notice. Last weekend was bitterly cold and we were without water. We couldn't flush the toilet, my daughter came in from football trials and couldn't shower, and we couldn't light the solid fuel stove. We were freezing! It lasted only 24 hours, but it felt like a week.
"When the water came back, it was cloudy for days. I wouldn't let the kids drink it. And now Christmas is coming, and I wonder if we'll be cut off then and for how long?"
Paschal Fitzmaurice, a Fianna Fáil councillor for Roscommon, says that due to the limestone soil in the area, heavy rain causes turbidity in the water.
"This means the system slows down and is unable to process the water at the right speed to supply demand," he says.
"Last weekend, I had a lot of complaints from people who had no water. When you have families to take care of, that's just not on. The way water charges were introduced was a fiasco, but the bottom line is, we need a proper infrastructure that will supply clean water consistently to everybody, and we have to find ways to pay for that."
So far this year, 86,000 people throughout Ireland have had to boil their water to make it safe. While most of Ireland's 962 drinking water supplies comply with regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency's latest drinking water remedial action list for Q3 2016 features 108 "at-risk" areas serving 830,000 consumers. These water supplies are variously described as having "inadequate treatment for cryptosporidium", "elevated levels of pesticides", "failed to meet e.coli/enterococci standard", or "elevated levels of THMs". The chemical compounds trihalomethanes (THMs) are the result of a reaction between the chlorine used for disinfecting tap water and natural organic matter in the water. At elevated levels, THMs have been associated with negative health effects such as cancer and problems with fertility and reproduction.
Our waste water systems are equally worrying. Figures released this week by the EPA show that raw sewage is being discharged into 43 rivers, lakes and coastal areas around the state.
"There are areas where you just don't want to swim after heavy rain," says Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. "The number of clean river sites has plummeted in the last three decades from 500 to 20.
"Climate change is already impacting on this country, and we need to address it with a sense of urgency. Carbon emissions have increased by 3.7pc, transport emissions by 4.2pc and energy by 5pc. We're going to hell in a handcart. If we don't tackle it now, counties in the west will have too much water, while we'll see drought conditions in the east.
"We don't value our environment. We're not paying attention. We've got to put a price on the environment, and we've got to put a price on the wasteful use of water."
Which brings us back to those controversial water charges. They may be the last thing anyone wants to hear, but turning a blind eye is likely to cost us dearly, according to Michael Ewing of the Environmental Pillar, a body representing 28 non-government organisations.
"There must be water charges, because using water costs money, like it or not," he says. "Taxation is unfair; why would somebody who's very wealthy with a swimming pool pay the same as somebody who's struggling and being careful with their water? It should be based on usage, like the charge for plastic bags.
"However, charges or no charges, bringing the water infrastructure up to standard has to be done, or Ireland will be fined by the European Union. We may also face potential fines for not controlling our landfills. There are not enough landfills for the waste being produced.
"These fines will run into millions, first as a lump sum, and then a daily charge, for being in contempt of court. We are part of an economic union, in which every country is bound by the same rules."
Elsewhere, a far greater threat to the environment comes from somebody who believes in making his own rules. US President Elect Donald Trump has appointed as the head of his EPA Myron Ebell, a man who claims that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese. Trump has also threatened to pull out of the Paris climate deal, a legally binding agreement ratified by 113 countries.
"We're not going to let Trump and his cohorts dismantle the progress we've made so far," says Eamon Ryan. "If they do try to push through their climate change denial agenda, I believe there will be a real political, public and social backlash. It would be a reckless and dangerous course.
"It would take him four years to extricate America from the deal. The only way he could do it would be to leave the United Nations, which, as Mary Robinson said, would make America a rogue state. I don't think it's going to happen."
However, it appears Trump has had a possible change of heart which he revealed during an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday.
He said he would "keep an open mind" about the Paris accord. But if his previous stance sent shock waves around the world, Sinéad Fortune from Wexford is part of a younger generation prepared to face him down.
"We have to reclaim our planet in spite of leaders like him," says the 29-year-old from Blackwater. "We're now at the cusp of a massive change, a seismic societal shift, and our generation has to say enough. Your profits are not more valuable than people's lives."
Based in Scotland, Sinéad has founded a company, Urban Catch, which specialises in a sustainable form of food production called aquaponics. Combining aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants in water rather than soil), this produces clean, chemical-free food up to three times faster and with only 10pc of the water used in traditional methods.
"As it's extremely space-efficient it can be used in urban settings, massively decreasing transportation and carbon emissions of the agricultural industry," says Sinéad. "This makes perfect sense, especially when 60pc of the world's population lives in urban spaces.
"We educate local people to grow their own food, as well as supplying food for sale to the community.
"We also bring aquaponics to the classroom and talk to children about how plants and animals interact. They love it.
"The previous generation focused all their energies on consumption. Worst of all, people who contributed least to the problem are suffering most. But wheels are turning... It's time to draw a line in the sand. Maybe we are on a sinking ship, but I'd rather be bailing water out than pouring it in."
5 facts about climate change
* Ireland is unlikely to reach its 2020 greenhouse gas emission target of 20pc. The EPA predicts the actual reduction will be between 6pc and 11pc.
* Almost 60 million children live in areas which have low levels of access to water and are at risk of drought or flood (Unicef).
* Five tiny Pacific islands have disappeared due to rising seas and erosion. According to the online Environmental Research Letters, they were part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, which has seen annual sea levels rise by 10mm over the last two decades.
* Scientists this year reported the first mammal species to go extinct was a small rodent called the Bramble Cay melomys, which once lived on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef.
* According to Canadian scientists, if we keep burning fossil fuels, global temperatures will increase by 8°C by the year 2300, returning earth to the climate of 52 million years ago.