Boiling Point: The North-East Galway Water Crisis

Martin Cusack

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Water supply image
Photo: Ariful Haque Bhuiyan (Flickr)

Water, as all of the clichés associated with Irish weather suggest, is an element which we should have no shortage of here in Ireland. With our famous levels of rainfall and our abundant rivers and lakes, a regular and clean supply of fresh drinking water is something which all of our citizens should be able to take for granted. However, in North-East County Galway, reserves of drinkable water have been a rare and precious commodity over the last two years. A mixture of ineptitude and lack of forward planning on the part of the water authorities have led to households in this sparsely populated area of the West being placed under a boil water notice for the past eighteen months, as cryptosporidium levels remain dangerously high. How did this lamentable situation come about, and what is being done to break the stalemate which has allowed this crisis to trickle on into a third year?

Locals in the village of Williamstown in North-East Galway, close to the border with Roscommon, have seen their town suffer as a result of the violent mood-swings of the national economy over the last two decades. The prosperity created by the Celtic Tiger failed to radiate out to many areas of rural Ireland, and Williamstown was no exception. Once a thriving small town, the area was badly hit by successive waves of emigration as unemployment began to bite hard in the 1980s and 90s. Williamstown had plenty of problems to contend with before the current water crisis loomed into view, and now residents are increasingly exasperated by the inaction which has led to the town’s water supply being rendered unusable.

Householders in Williamstown first became aware that all was not well with the area’s water supply in October 2014. The dangerous water-borne bug cryptosporidium, which causes diarrhoea and other serious gastrointestinal illnesses, was detected in the local supply and a boil-water notice was immediately put in place. Residents were assured that a short- term solution to the water problem would be advanced within six months, but now almost two years later, little has been done to resolve the issue.

When asked for comment after the original boil-water notice was put in place, Sean Corrigan, Irish Water Regional Information Officer, said that Irish Water was working to fast-track a solution to the situation.

“Irish Water is developing three possible solutions, one short-term, one medium-term and one long-term, in parallel, with varying timelines. The short-term solution involves a UV treatment with a timeline of approximately three to four and a half months to completion. The second is a temporary treatment plant, which would take approximately 12 months to get up and running, once planning and validation are taken into account,” said Corrigan.

Despite the ambitious plans laid out by Corrigan, progress on the issue proved agonisingly slow to pick up pace. Talks were held between Irish Water representatives and local stakeholders, without any positive, workable solutions being proposed.

By January 5th 2015, the Irish Times had reported, “a boil water notice was issued to residents of Williamstown in late October and is likely to remain in place until the end of 2016, when an extension to a separate water scheme into the area is expected to be completed.” Two tears months later, there is little of substance which can be added to this account.

When asked for his thoughts on this protracted crisis, local TD Michael Fitzmaurice, an Independent, said: “The people of Roscommon/Galway have been very poorly served by the Council in this instance. It is another example of the rural communities being placed at the bottom of the list of government priorities”.

“It is crazy that the residents of Williamstown could be on a boil water notice for two years. I see no reason why the council could not have put a temporary solution in place which would have allowed Williamstown to gain access to water from one of the many neighbouring water schemes.”

 

There are many county councillors and politicians at national level who have fought hard to keep areas such as North-East Galway alive. However, it is difficult to understand how a seemingly simple water supply problem, in a developed European democracy such as our own, could have been allowed to rumble on for so long. With an ageing population and most of the younger generation lost to emigration, Williamstown feels like an area that has been allowed to stagnate.Clearly, not enough is being done to keep rural communities such as these from sliding into the doldrums.

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Martin Cusack