18th January

Overhaul of water governance required to ensure cross agency cooperation

Sinead O’Brien

Ireland’s water is the final recipient and carrier of all the chemicals and pollutants that we release, knowingly and unknowingly, while going about our lives; making a living and producing goods and services. Some of these are absorbed and diluted by soil and water; others persist in the environment and interact in ways we don’t yet understand. Many find their way into water supplies; some are removed by water treatment; some aren’t.

Physical alterations of our rivers, dredging and infill of river-side wetlands also have a serious cumulative effect. With limited floodplains to absorb rainwater during a storm, it’s more likely to surge downstream, gathering force, until it finds a weak spot and breaches. We saw the tragic results of this during last winter’s flooding.

It is clear that managing our water requires an integrated approach that looks at each river catchment and all the activities in it as a whole.

Last month (July), River Basin Management Plans were being adopted by Local Authorities; these are required by EU law to take just such an approach.

It has been apparent to outside observers that this new way of managing water would require an overhaul of water governance to ensure full co-operation between all state agencies involved in regulating activities impacting on water. The following (incomplete) roll call of agencies and government departments gives an indication of how unwieldy the current system is:

Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government
Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food
34 Local Authorities
Environmental Protection Agency
Inland Fisheries Ireland
Office of Public Works
National Parks and Wildlife Service

Nevertheless, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Finally, at the annual gathering of water managers at the EPA Water Conference in Galway in June, general agreement was reached that for the Plans to be implemented successfully, a restructuring of the currently fragmented structures of water management was urgently needed.

The Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) of environmental groups which I co-ordinate is supporting the proposed review of water governance. But a review can be an expensive, meaningless exercise unless it results in the necessary change. Whatever structure results from the review, it must have a clear RBD remit and must be provided with the resources and statutory power to oversee and enforce implementation across all relevant public bodies.

The ultimate goal of the Plans is to provide clean, healthy water for people and wildlife, with enough space for natural water processes. This will support livelihoods; protect our health and homes and protect Ireland’s internationally renowned rivers, lakes and coastline for local communities, visitors and future generations.

To do this we must ensure that the proper governance structure is in place – a structure that overcomes the ‘stay off my patch’ attitude of certain government agencies and puts healthy water first. 

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