Thursday, 3 February 2005
Water Services Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
Bernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
There is a need for a water services Bill but not that which is before the House because it restricts itself to the management of water. The broader issue of the provision of adequate water supplies to meet domestic and industrial needs is one I have raised in numerous parliamentary questions in recent years. Ireland has been lucky, or unlucky as the case may be, to have had heavy annual rainfalls for the last nine years. There has been no dearth of water supplies, making it necessary to draw on resources. However, three consecutive dry seasons could lead to a drought, meaning current storage facilities would be inadequate to meet requirements. In that respect, the Water Services Bill fails.
Many Members have decried one-off rural housing because it may damage the water table and pollute water supplies. I have read and listened to individuals in the media proclaim themselves experts on the issue. However, an ironic event has occurred in the Kildare North constituency. Part of the Bog of Allen is a high water table area. A proposal has been approved by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and supported by Kildare County Council to provide a landfill on this water-saturated site. While there is logic in all that local authorities suggest, occasionally it can stretch the imagination. What is the wisdom behind locating a landfill site in the Bog of Allen with the potential to pollute a large area as far as the River Shannon and north Munster? People wishing to build houses in the same area are regularly refused planning permission on the grounds of pollution risks in this high water table area. The excuse often given is that an extra septic tank or water treatment system would contribute to the pollution of the area. It is hypocritical of the Department, the local authority and experts to suggest that a massive landfill with a lifespan of 15 years will be less of a pollution threat than four dozen houses. I do not accept that notion.
We must legislate for people too. People have needs to live in the area in which they were born and raised. When the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has disposed of the unworkable electronic ballot boxes that he inherited from his predecessors, possibly by igniting them, he might then consider other options in the provision of water services. Will he identify a route that will provide what the Bill intends without it being undermined by a serious flaw in planning guidelines?
It will be argued that everyone opposes proposals in their backyard, the NIMBY factor. I admit the proposed site is in my backyard. However, I oppose it because County Kildare has already catered for one landfill at Kill. I do not wish my constituency to become the location for every landfill requirement in the State. Every other constituency has its responsibilities. This proposal has the potential to pollute the water system. I have asked in parliamentary questions if the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government approves the concept of having a landfill in the middle of a water-saturated area. Twenty years ago the local authority proposed a scenic lake with an amenity centre, marina and wildlife sanctuary for the same site. However, that was superseded by planning. Wise men and women have taken over the process and proposed a landfill. This illustrates the contradictions that sometimes emerge with the intention of legislation. The objective behind legislation can sometimes become confused and dimmed by other activities.
We hear reports on a regular basis of the poor quality of the domestic water supply. Water supply sources need to be carefully monitored and tested to the same rigours local authorities demand of applicants for rural housing in respect of water supply for their dwellings. If other water supplies were tested on the same basis as that of an applicant for rural housing, they would not pass. As the theory is the potential for pollution is less in an urban setting, such water tests are not required. Does that mean rural dwellers are less pollution conscious? The monitoring of the piped domestic supply needs to be tightened. I do not agree that to facilitate this objective, everyone should be swept out of the countryside to live in high-rise urban blocks. It is possible to achieve the same objective by ensuring water supplies are not polluted.
Who are the main water polluters? The record will show that over the last 20 years local authorities have been among the culprits, particularly in the case of water treatment plants not functioning satisfactorily. In some cases, a year after they have been built, these plants fail to function. In other cases, the technology they use is out of date. There is no excuse for having a water treatment system in situ that is out of date in five years. Apropos of this, an expensive water treatment plant was built in Dublin city that within 18 months was failing to do its job.
The potential to pollute water supplies is not dealt with in this Bill. Instead it will put in place structures for the control and sale of the water supply system in the future. The next most powerful sheikh will not be an oil one but a water one. Every other service and facility has become extraordinarily expensive, such as housing. The State is supposed to be full of money with everyone having sufficient resources to meet their requirements. However, for the past ten years young people have been denied access to an affordable housing market. Great pious tearing of hair, beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth has occurred but nothing has been done to address the issue. If water supplies fall into the hands of various groups, they will become equally powerful and influential. Water will become a scarce commodity sold on the market at a high price. This will not be good for the economy or society. It naturally follows where the Government failed to do its job. The Government has failed to invest sufficiently in the provision of the water infrastructure. It has been obvious for the past ten or 15 years that when the Government fails to do its job, someone else is forced to take up the race where it left off. While the Minister is relatively new to his Department, he knows the environment fairly well. Given his appointment to the Department, I hope we will see positive changes, because most of the changes we have witnessed and suffered as a result of over a number of years were not beneficial nor helpful, they were the opposite. The Minister's previous knowledge and service on a local authority is also a positive aspect. Nowadays the rules of this House prevent people from having parallel membership of local authorities, the negative aspects of which are already apparent. It is clear now that local authorities are relieved that Oireachtas members are no longer there.