Belfast Telegraph

Craggy Islanders battle water shortage

By Brian McDonald

Ah feck, there's no water! It might well be a line from 'Father Ted', the TV series inspired by Inis Oirr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands off the Galway coast where the shipwreck of the Plassy -- shown in the opening credits of the show -- still lies.

Except, there's no one laughing on this craggy island. Life is a challenge at the best of times, when you're 30 miles from the mainland. But try it without a supply of fresh water.

The people of Inis Oirr (population 270) have scarcely known a year as bad. The problems with the water stretch back decades, but nobody remembers a crisis like this one.

Bizarrely, for an island buffeted by Atlantic gales, the problem is a lack of rain.

"I know, it sounds crazy, but we don't get the rain we need to keep us in fresh water," said Inis Oirr Co-Op manager, Paddy Crowe. "Elsewhere in the West you've got the mountains of Connemara or the Clare Hills to trap the rain, but here the weather systems just seem to pass right over us."

Because of the lack of rain, underground saltwater has contaminated the fresh water in the several local wells and Galway County Council -- on the advice of the HSE -- has advised against using it for drinking purposes.

And that's in addition to the daily water restrictions which see the water cut off from 6pm to 11am.

The Co-Op, Comhar Caomhan Teo, does everything from trading on behalf of the locals to helping them to fill in forms and liaise with public and private bodies to smooth out life's problems.

But most of Paddy Crowe's time these days is spent on trying to ensure that the islanders have enough fresh water to get by. Supplies were critically low this week as bad weather prevented the ferry from sailing to Inis Oirr and there was no fresh water available.

The council had to call in the Coastguard and 900 litres of bottled water were collected from the Galway Water plant in Galway city and flown by helicopter to the island on Wednesday.

"It was great to get it as we had no water delivery since the previous Saturday," said Mr Crowe. "But then, most of the water was gone by that evening. The problem has been going on for decades and people here really need a long-term solution.

"We have asked the council for a public meeting to spell out what is likely to happen now and, in fairness to the council, they've been working hard to try to solve the problem and we hope to have the meeting next week."

With three young daughters, Sarah O'Donnell needs no reminding of the difficulties that can be caused by a lack of water.

"It's a nightmare and I expect the people in other parts of the country don't have a clue how difficult it can be at times," she said.

Sarah and husband Peadar have their hands full with Roisin (6), Cliodhna (4) and baby Siobhan (1).

They've given up worrying about what the salty water might do to the inside of the family washing machine.

"I don't know how it will affect it, but we've given up worrying about it. You have to wash, especially with three young children," said Sarah.

Galway County Council said yesterday it expected water restrictions on Inis Oirr would be lifted next week.

Senior water services engineer Martin Lavelle explained that a new pipe had now been laid from a clean spring on the island to the purification plant at the reservoir and this would help the situation significantly.

"We've been monitoring the water on the island for months but we wouldn't have expected that it would have gone on for so long without decent rainfall," he said.

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