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Aaron McKenna: What our water shortages tell Web Summit investors

If this first world country, where rain and green fields are an intrinsic part of the national mythos, can’t provide adequate water to its capital city… what else might the Irish be bad at providing for?

Image: Amy Johansson via Shutterstock

TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY wheeled out his familiar shibboleth at the Dublin Web Summit, about how the government is making Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. As is so often the case, his lofty rhetoric didn’t match up with the experience of many visitors who’ve arrived to find the capital on overnight water rationing.

Just like if we visit a foreign city and are told the water is dodgy, our impression of the place in general is reduced. By the time the problem is fixed, we’ve gone home and aren’t too interested to check back in and see if Banana Republic has sorted its issues while we’re just happy to be back in civilization, where the water runs clear and safe.

This is the second time this year that the capital of this great little country in which to do business has had its water supply curtailed. Things like rolling blackouts or water shortages tend to occur in poorly run parts of the world. The very presence of water restrictions is a bit of a red flag to overseas investors who might be getting their first taste of Ireland through the excellent Web Summit.

If this first world country, where rain and green fields are an intrinsic part of the national mythos, can’t provide adequate water to its capital city… what else might the Irish be bad at providing for?

Dublin operates at the brink of its capacity

That’s an interesting question. The current water shortage in Dublin seems to be down to some mysterious shift in the chemistry in one of our biggest reservoirs, baffling experts. In and of itself, this is not the fault of those who provide us with safe drinking water.

What is the fault of The Powers That Be is that Dublin operates at 1 per cent spare capacity at the best of times. As journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes has pointed out, most first world cities operate with about 20 per cent spare capacity. This drop off in capacity at one reservoir wouldn’t be an issue if we had that kind of headroom.

To an investor visiting the Web Summit I suppose this would send one message: the Irish are very bad at planning ahead. After all, it’s not like we have suddenly developed a taste for taking long showers. Demographic shifts and population growth and so on tend to happen at relative glacial pace, and there have been reports stretching back into the 1980s on the precarious situation developing for Dublin.

During the boom, when Dublin’s inhabited square footage exploded, it was obvious that the city would need more water capacity.

The debate on how and where Dublin would get its water dragged on for years with no resolution. Lack of political will, even when funds were readily available for every silly project TDs could imagine; significant regional wrangling over where the water would come from; and never-ending planning battles have all stood in the way of solving a fairly straightforwardly important problem.

The last water shortage in the capital this year, along with several in the past couple of years, occurred because cold weather cracked ancient pipes that have been in the ground since Queen Victoria ruled us in her vast Empire. A third of all the water produced in Dublin, which we pay good money to filter and clean and make fit for human consumption, leaks into the ground.

While Dubliners were arguing with the provincials over who got what water and at what price, we might have bought ourselves some time by digging up more old pipes and replacing them with new ones. But no, this great little country in which to do business doesn’t seem to be able to think even in terms of proper Band-Aid, let alone cure or prevention.

Now businesses in the city, which pay extortionate rates and water charges, have to shut up shop, send staff home early and forego revenue because they don’t have water to service their customers. Seems to me like a fairly crappy place to do business, really.

Very few of the Web Summit attendees will be setting up coffee shops. But the disruption they’ve seen will be a lasting impression. They’re not here for the long run, and they’re not too likely to listen to very much by way of official excuses for the water shortage.

We will soon be paying directly for our water in homes, much as businesses do already. We already pay for that water through general taxation, so you might just say that we’ll be paying even more for it in the near future. Yet, countrywide we have shortages and leakages and contaminations of our water supply.

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Frankly, we ought to start sending the government bills for all the bottled water we have to use when the water supply goes bad.

As for poor old Dublin, it’s very clear that the city cannot be supported by its water supply. Proposals to pipe water from the Shannon tend to get backs up outside of the city, but the entire country needs to recognise that if the economy of the capital suffers because it can’t get enough of something as fundamental as water, the rest of the country will suffer also.

Dublin is our largest economic centre. It is the place that foreigners thinking of investing here see first and foremost. It is also, incidentally, a net outflow contributor to much of the rest of the country; paying more in taxes than it receives in government spending. The city needs some water in return.

This has been clear for decades. Irish governments that want to be able to claim to be good at pretty much anything at all might start by avoiding practical demonstrations of their stupidity, such as having to turn off the taps at night in a country famous for its rain.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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