Privatisation leads to dirty, discoloured water in Cork

By Mick Barry TD 

Reviewing the Cork City North West local election contest on 31 May the Irish Examiner wrote: “Big issues also include housing and rents and – surprisingly in a modern city – delivery of clean tap water.”

This analysis was spot on but could also have been applied to other part of the Northside, indeed to the city as a whole. Part of the problem relates to the fact that 52% of the city’s underground water pipe network is cast iron and is between 65 and 100 years old. 

Profiteers destroy pipes 

The other part of the problem is privatisation – specifically Uisce Eireann’s decision to pay a private company €40 million to design, build and operate the new Lee Road Waterworks. The company treated hard water with a chemical that ripped sediment from the inside of the pipes and caused a huge spike of dirty, discoloured (brown and orange) water in August 2022. 

Since then there have been a further two major spikes. Uisce Eireann has attempted a damage limitation strategy by allocating about a third of the labour time of the city’s water workers to various “flushing” exercises in the worst affected areas. 

But they have only had limited success with this strategy. 

A survey organised by Socialist Party Cllr Brian McCarthy in the Gurranabraher / Knocknaheeny area this spring found 77% of households with discoloured water coming from their taps “sometimes or often”. Many reported damage to property including washing machines, showers and kettles.

A new water charge 

The poll further found 69% preferring the purchase of bottled water to drinking from the tap. Clearly, many are sceptical about Uisce Eireann’s claim that the water is safe to drink if allowed to run clear. The average weekly spend of those polled who buy bottled water was €18.

This represents a “water charge” by the back door, a charge considerably higher than the sums mentioned for upfront water charges ten years ago. The local election campaign waged by Brian McCarthy and the Socialist Party put the issue of safe, clean water front and centre and served to move the issue up the political agenda. 

A number of public meetings and protests called by Brian – in particular an 80-strong community protest in Gurranabraher – took the issue from the realm of individual complaints into that of collective protest. 

What needs to be done 

Having been reelected to Cork City Council on 7 June, Brian will continue to push on the water issue. Uisce Eireann says €500 million will need to be invested to modernise the water pipes and fully resolve the issue – all parties and candidates will need to commit to that at the General Election. 

In the meantime there needs to be compensation for households forced to buy bottled water. If the authorities won’t organise tankers to deliver water to affected communities then vouchers that can be exchanged for bottled water should be provided. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who ran successive governments that failed to invest in the pipes and then promoted the disaster of privatisation must pay a price for these failures. The system needs to be put in the hot seat also – capitalism has a lot of questions to answer if it cannot even provide clean tap water in a modern city.

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