Last week RTE played a radio debate between PJ Walsh, a locally based campaigner and PRO of the recently formed Shannon Environmental Protection Alliance (SPA), and Tom Leahy, an engineer with Dublin City Council.
They discussed a proposal to extract water from the river Shannon at Loch Ree to quench the growing water demand from the greater Dublin area. I had been following this story for a while and Jack O’Sullivan, and environmental consultant who produced an Environmental Impact Study for the SPA, has been kindly keeping me informed of developments.
Extraction of increasing volumes of water from rivers to supply urban areas is inherently unsustainable but follows a pattern that has been repeated throughout the world leading to the devastation of many of the world’s major river systems (see my review “When the Rivers Run Dry”).
Despite assurances from Mr Leahy that extraction from Loch Ree was only one option under consideration, and that it “simply will not happen” if further feasibility studies demonstrate an unacceptable impact on navigation, fishing and water quality, it appears that other options exist that have not been seriously considered. There is rapidly growing local opposition- from a wide variety of individuals and organisations with interests in angling, boat hire, tourism, conservation, wildlife and environmental protection- expressing concern that the Dublin City Council have already made up their mind to pursue the Loch Ree option without proper consultation.
Indeed, Mr Walsh’s anger was palpable during the interview as he compared the plan to being “like taking the heart out of a living human being”. There is clearly a very strong emotional link to the Shannon, Ireland’s principle river that runs deeply through the cultural and mythological -as well as the physical- landscape.
Mr. Walsh made it clear that the 1.5million stakeholders in the surrounding catchment area of the Shannon will be the ones to decide the fate of the river, but that the Dublin Council should in any case drop the plan because there is “no chance whatsoever” of it being accepted.
The report by Environmental Management Services recommends instead various alternatives such as water conservation measures and fixing leaks (total losses in the Greater Dublin Area from leaks are estimated to account for up to 60% of the total quantity of water proposed to be extracted from Loch Ree!); education on conservation and rainwater harvesting; water metering; and a significant potential alternative source in a gravel and fissured bedrock aquifer around North County Dublin that could meet Dublin’s needs more adequately. This aquifer would in any case be preferable, requiring less treatment than surface water from the Loch.
They conclude: “It is our observation that one remarkable failure of the preliminary study commissioned by Dublin City Council is the lack of any reference to the effects of large-scale water abstraction from lakes or rivers in other parts of the world. One such example, which is the subject of considerable international concern, is the abstraction of water from the River Jordan, which has resulted in near destruction of the Red Sea and serious irreversible damage to the River Jordan.”
The fate of The Dead Sea is essentially linked to increasing human population and development pressure on natural resources. Like the pressure to build a motorway through another of Ireland’s great heritage sites, the Hill of Tara, the issue of the Shannon represents a generally increasing tension between the needs of growing urban populations and the management of natural resources.
Better planning, greater political accountability, efficiency and conservation measures will all have their role to play, but as the Growth Economy continues and population pressure increases in Ireland these tensions are likely only to increase. The interests of a growing urban population of consumers and those of the recreational and environmental groups around the Shannon are not necessarily entirely incompatible but until a much more fundamental debate about the prescience of short-term economic benefits over sustainability and environmental protection takes place, the pressure will increase on what’s left of Ireland’s heritage and natural resources.