Rural water schemes pose public health risk

The European Commission has taken a case against Ireland over water quality supplied to households

Health risk: 20,000 households in Ireland face a health risk due to contaminated water.
Health risk: 20,000 households in Ireland face a health risk due to contaminated water.
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Drinking water supplies serving more than 20,000 households across rural Ireland have been identified as posing a public health risk due to trihalomethane (THM) contamination.

Some 20 community-run group water schemes in Cavan, Clare, Galway, Kerry, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo are in need of urgent upgrades, with the population served by each scheme ranging from just over 200 households up to 2,600. The schemes supply more than 20,000 households (see graph).

THMs are compounds which can occur after chlorine is added to water as part of the disinfection process. Long-term exposure is linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer and other health problems, but it is considered riskier to drink untreated water.

The group water supplies have been identified by the European Commission as part of an infringement case being taken against Ireland. Problems with THMs are also present in public supplies, putting more than 350,000 households at risk, and highlight the difficulties involved in ensuring safe and clean drinking water in public and private schemes.

The most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which date from 2014, showed that dangerous bugs including E. coli have been detected in 76 small, private supplies, and that 97.3pc comply with quality standards. This compares with 99.9pc of supplies in the public system, operated by Irish Water.

Around 6pc of the population source their drinking water from group water schemes, which are run by the community. Around 80,000 households are on private group water schemes, but the figure is less-clear for public schemes which are connected to the Irish Water network - it's believed there could be a similar number.


Research and Evaluation Officer with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes (NFGWS), Brian MacDonald, said around €1bn has been invested since 2000 on capital upgrades of group water schemes, but that more work was needed. "Now we're focusing on non-compliant schemes, including installation of appropriate treatment following analysis of the raw water and completion of installation of network management tools including meters and valves," he told Farming Independent.

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"These are the schemes where investment is needed. An effective disinfection system (which would eliminate THMs) could cost around €30,000 for a small supply. Last year there were 24 group water schemes which failed to meet standards for E. coli. Around 50 had other microbiological issues. Investment is based on a risk evaluation, and around 50 schemes need some infrastructure investment, but we need to ensure the schemes are correctly managed."

The Government has committed to restoring funding levels for capital projects to group water schemes to help offset the cost of completing improvements. The NFGWS says it is "fully confident" that increases will be approved.

The money covered the cost of treatment systems, mains replacement, installation of meters and upgrades to reservoirs. The biggest spend was on design, build and operate (DBO) contracts, where a private entity built the plant and operates it on behalf of the community. The investment delivered a huge improvement in quality.

"We are in the position where the capital investment programme has allowed the schemes to decommission reservoirs and reduce the planned output from plants so the water coming through is much safer," Mr MacDonald said. "There has been a massive improvement, and where problems occur they tend to be in smaller schemes."

Around half of all private group water schemes serve 100 houses or less. One in Wexford serves just two properties. To avail of a subsidy, the household and scheme must have adopted a charter of rights and responsibilities for members, and the scheme must have a corporate structure. The charter covers everything from reporting leaks and paying any money which is owed.

"In a group water scheme, I own the water. I can influence the charges, sit on the board, and there is that democratic control. It's my asset," he said.

Payment is not an issue where a charge is applied. They typically range from €50 to €200 a year, and there is usually a free allowance.

"A lot of people relied on the bucket from the well until the group water scheme came. They appreciate the endeavour, and they're run on a voluntary basis. Schemes are also sympathetic to people in difficulty, but where people are acting the maggot they have been taken to court and disconnected. It's always an option, because you're a member of a club and you decide not to pay. the rules say the scheme is entitled to cut you off."

While the NFGWS has no wish to get involved in the debate over whether charges should be introduced for those on Irish Water's system, it says the utility can learn lessons from the sector, and highlights the effectiveness of metering.

"We would never advise unlimited free water to members. There has to be a cap, otherwise the implications are real health costs.

"We had 85pc water loss on some schemes, it was being treated and pumped, and lost, and we found when we put in the meters, that 50pc of the loss was on the consumer side. If a meter is put in, the advantages of controlling water flow through the network are clear.

"In Malin (in Donegal), there is zero water loss in a small scheme of 80 houses. They have a source which can't produce a lot of water, and water conservation is very important for them.

"In Monaghan, we have less than 10pc water loss. In upgraded schemes, the loss is between 15pc to 20pc. They're almost competitive about it. It annoys them that water is being lost. So there really should be no such thing as an 'acceptable' level of loss when it comes to water."

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