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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
in the pipeline

Ireland is losing 43% of its drinking water in leaks - and has just gotten the data to start fixing the problem

One of the biggest problems with leaks is where to find them – a trained ear to hear a leak is still a commonly used method.

IRELAND IS LOSING around 43% of its treated drinking water in leaks throughout its piping system, and is spending around €100 million a year to try to reduce those leaks.

Irish Water is investing €500 million between 2017 and 2021 to repair leaks in order to bring the leaks from a rate of 49% in 2017 to 38% by 2021. The rate has been reduced to 43% this year – partly due to a new nationwide system of calculating and finding leaks.

“The volume of drinking water lost during 2018 has been reduced by approximately 73.8 million litres per day,” Irish Water told

Until this year, there was no nationwide data available that showed where leaks were in the system, and how much was being spent on fixing those leaks. Local authorities were tasked with fixing leaks and bursts, which has since been handed over to Irish Water.

As local authorities were in charge of fixing leaks in their areas, there were 31 different approaches to tackling leakage, without any overriding strategy to stop leaks across the country, and each local authority with their own methodology for calculating leaks.

Table European Environment Agency European Environment Agency

In the second quarter of this year, Irish Water’s “purpose-built leak management system that pulls data from all our own enterprise systems” went live in order to help locate leaks in order so that they can be fixed.

It calculates leaks based on how much water enters a district water meter, versus how much is left once it passes through the customer’s water meter. There are around 1 million water meters installed across the country, with a separate 4,400 district meters. 

Irish Water says its data isn’t perfect, but it now has a singular approach to collating it, which is helping to fix leaks. It says that in 2017 Ireland’s leakage rate was 47%, but has now been brought down to 43%, bringing it closer to its target of 38% by 2021. 

BURST WATER PIPES NAVAN 758A8429_90519359 Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

Ireland’s leakage rate is among the highest in Europe; Dublin in particular leaks more than its European counterparts. Although it’s considered overly costly to get a leakage rate below 20% (particularly for Ireland, which has 63,000km of pipes and 12.5 million water joints), Ireland has always been a long way off from cost-ratio point. 

Although the leaks are sometimes related to ancient piping infrastructure, Irish Water says that in its experience, some pipes laid down during the boom years can be in a worse condition than 100-year-old or Victorian era pipes. 

Burst or leaking pipe problems also become more frequent after the winter period.

What’s the plan now?

In 2018, Irish Water carried out over 39,000 leak investigations and fixed over 22,500 leaks. On average, 1,500 leaks are repaired each month:

Through the First Fix scheme we have saved over 128 million litres of water a day from the repair of 61,560 leaks, [we're] on track to save 166 million litres of drinking water daily by 2021 – enough water to fill 66 Olympic-size swimming pools every day.

Irish Water’s ‘Find & Fix’ scheme and the ‘First Fix Free’ scheme were created in order to tackle water leaks with the public’s help.

The First Fix Free scheme offers a free investigation if your water meter has indicated a possible leak on your external supply pipe, and a free fix if one is found on the external pipe.

The ‘Find & Fix’ scheme involves leak detection experts who have begun using sounding equipment in public areas to locate underground leak. There are also experts who put listening sticks (made of wood and a metal stick) up to the fittings, and use special hearing skills to identify where the leak is. 

‘Unaccounted-for Water’ can come in the form of ‘bursts’, ‘leaks’, or background leaks, such as weeping on pipes which is costly and difficult to prevent entirely.

90209408_90209408 Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Supplying water to Dublin

Consultant Emma Kennedy had submitted an argument to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that it wasn’t justified pumping more water into Dublin’s pipes without properly tackling leaks. 

“Dublin’s water pipes are on their knees,” she wrote in an opinion piece on her site.

For decades, the short-sighted solution to increasingly decrepit and leaky pipes has been to pump more and more water into the supply system to counteract the growing leakage.

“Provided Irish Water meets its own leakage targets the Shannon Pipeline is unnecessary,” she argued. 

It has even been suggested that if Dublin had “normal” leakage levels today it still wouldn’t have enough water. This is nonsense. Irish Water’s data shows that if Dublin had normal leakage its spare capacity would be off the charts.

Irish Water argues that growth (increase in population and construction work in the city centre) coupled with ‘the natural rate of rise’ (meaning the older pipes get, the more they leak) has lead Dublin’s water supply to become under strain.

“As growth is going up, the demand to supply our customers in Dublin keeps going up. Every year we’re dropping leakage, which is giving us a bit more breathing space, but we’re going to hit a stage at some stage in the next 10 years where we’re going to get very close to maximum capacity,” an Irish Water spokesperson said.

The utility argued that its objective is to reach “sustainable economic levels of leakage”, which is the level at which “it would cost more (in operational, environmental and social terms) to make further reductions in leakage in the water distribution system than to produce the water from another source, where environmental, resource and social costs are fairly included”. 

“So leakage will only do so much for you,” the spokesperson added.

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