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Terry Prone: Trouble in pipeline if we take supply for granted

A month ago, we had so much water that we could let hundreds of gallons of it pour down the plughole while we cleaned our teeth and never give it a thought.

This week, in sharp contrast, we have so little water that thousands of people in parts of Dublin and Mullingar are showering in Ballygowan or the equivalent.

Whenever water actually comes out of the taps, we nearly throw a party to celebrate.

Nor do we have any promise, despite the fact that the Big Freeze seems in retreat, that water supplies are on the up.

Several local authorities are indicating that sporadic service, low pressure and water shortages are likely to continue.

That's for two reasons: the reservoirs are low in water and a fair amount of what flows through the pipes from those reservoirs is seeping away into the soil around the pipes through cracks and ruptures.

Blame the local authorities? No. In our big cities, the local authorities have been fighting an uphill battle about water for decades.

The Victorian lead pipes that carried water for generations simply don't match the needs of the 21st-century consumer or the sheer numbers of consumers tapping into the supply.

For the last 40 years, the local authorities have been trying to reach and fix leaks.

But if you have an underground pipe into which flows a thousand gallons of water and out of which flows only eight hundred gallons, how do you work out precisely where, in all of its length, lurks the break?

Even with cameras that can snake through sewer and sanitation pipes like an endoscope slithers its way through a human's internal pipework, it's still a difficult task, nearly as difficult as digging up and repairing the pipe when the damage is located.

Not to mention coping with the customers left without water for the duration or the passers-by inconvenienced by the roadworks.

Forty years ago, Dublin Corporation saw this problem coming down the pipe at them, and they ran TV ads showing a little goldfish looking really terrified as the water in its tank dropped.

It was a great ad and -- briefly -- it made consumers think twice about running garden hoses for hours, not paying attention to worn-out washers allowing water to leak from taps or not turning off the faucet during teeth-cleaning.

The flailing goldfish did make people think. God love him, (or her) he (or she) changed the behaviour of consumers. But only briefly. Because the Irish public just doesn't "get it" about water. We have so much of it around, we figure it's free and should be constantly available, without any charge.

We have no interest in water treatment plants, where high science is applied to waste water to ensure it doesn't spread disease or poison our waterways.

They're costly, those water treatment plants. Because water may be ever-present in Ireland, but it's not free, and we're learning that the hard way.

Of course you can put a rain barrel out the back of your house so you'll never be caught short. It's a great idea.

Until the icy morning when you have to fill a kettle and heat it on the cooker in order to wash your hair.

Until the day when you look at the colour of it and decide it couldn't be safe for the baby's bottle.

While we've had failures in the public water supply on the west coast, the reality is that most local authorities deliver us safe, clean, pure water every day, all year round, and we don't appreciate or value this priceless service.

It's only when the taps deliver a hollow croak, rather than a spurt of clear water, that we learn the painful truth: Water isn't free. Delivering it isn't easy or cheap. And we haven't a clue how to use it properly.