22nd September

Management of the water environment must not be forgotten in the drive to set up Irish Water

Sinead O’Brien, SWAN

In April this year the government announced plans to establish a new public water utility,  Irish Water, which will gradually take over responsibility for drinking water and waste-water services from local authorities between now and 2017. 
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There’s been significant political impetus behind Irish Water since it was included in Fine Gael’s pre-election Programme for Government in 2011.  As part of the establishment of this new semi-State company, water charging will be introduced.  Homes will be charged for the cost of providing drinking water and removal of waste through the sewerage system.   

Despite public misgivings about water charging, there is broad agreement that the proposed restructuring of currently fragmented water services to provide an efficient, streamlined water system is badly needed.  What is missing from this picture of water sector reform however is protection of the wider water environment.  


The Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) is an umbrella network of twenty-five of Ireland’s leading environmental groups working together to protect Ireland’s waters by participating in the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) in Ireland.

Water services are only part of a much bigger catchment-based water cycle which the government appears to be neglecting in the drive to get Irish Water up and running.  Drinking water is drawn from the environment – either from surface water or groundwater – and wastewater eventually ends up back in the environment, through discharges from sewage treatment plants into rivers and bays.  The integrated water services management approach proposed for Irish Water will only work in tandem with an equally integrated system of managing, at river basin level, the full range of pressures on our rivers, lakes, bays and groundwater.

This lack of political interest in the protection of our inland and coastal waters is of serious concern to the Sustainable Water Network of Irish environmental organisations, particularly given commitments to manage and protect them, set out in River Basin Management Plans published in 2010. 

EU law requires that these plans be implemented so as to achieve ‘good status’ of our waters by 2015 (or by 2027 with exemptions).  These have been in place now for two years and there is little indication that much is being done to implement them.   

Since 2010, there has been general agreement at official level that for the Plans to be delivered successfully, a restructuring of the currently fragmented system of water management is urgently needed. 

Due to the diversion of political interest to establishing Irish Water however, the necessary reform of, and funding for, wider catchment management has been sidelined, resulting in long delays in implementation.  

SWAN is urging political support for reform to address this debilitating lack of coordination between government agencies and Departments.  Resulting integrated structures must have a clear river basin remit and be provided with the resources and statutory power to coordinate, oversee and enforce implementation across all relevant public bodies.

Whatever funding model is decided upon for Irish Water, it is vital that the necessary resources are allocated to implement river basin management plans and for the protection and management of our natural rivers, lakes, bays and ground water.  

These are the sources of our drinking water and the final recipients of our waste.  They are the ‘bigger picture’ which must not be forgotten in the months ahead as the finer detail of Irish Water establishment is finalised.  

Well managed they provide clean, healthy water for people, industry and nature; they support livelihoods and provide enjoyment and recreation for local communities and for many thousands of visitors every year.  The same level of political will demonstrated in relation to Irish Water must now be targeted at wider river basin management if these benefits are to be realised.


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