Belfast Telegraph

Dr Len O'Hagan: Why we must act now to avert a water crisis

A legacy of underfunding has left our wastewater system bursting at the seams. A cleaner, greener and more prosperous future is the challenge - we just need the political direction to make it happen, says Dr Len O'Hagan

Water treatment plants are at, or close to, capacity
Water treatment plants are at, or close to, capacity

By Dr Len O'Hagan

Yesterday Northern Ireland Water launched its annual report and draft 25-year strategy. These included many positives, including record levels of drinking water quality and customer service, and the lowest ever levels of supply interruptions - all achieved while reducing costs.

While I am very proud of what Northern Ireland Water is delivering, a legacy of underfunding has put Northern Ireland's water infrastructure on the cusp of a crisis at a time when it is facing unprecedented challenges.

While we will continue to provide safe, clean and great-tasting drinking water, the challenges facing our ageing water infrastructure have the potential to impede economic development across Northern Ireland and undermine environmental protections.

For too long the security of our water infrastructure has been taken for granted and difficult decisions about funding have been kicked down the road. That prevarication has been possible in large part because Northern Ireland Water has successfully squared the circle of maintaining its multi-billion-pound assets with inadequate funding by being innovative and efficient.

That, however, cannot continue; we have reached a tipping point. If we want to maintain water services consistent with a healthy, western European economy we need to start taking a new approach now.

We need a step-change in the level of Government funding and we need to discuss how society provides for indispensable water infrastructure.

The challenges facing Northern Ireland Water are multi-faceted, but the pinch-point is wastewater infrastructure - that part of the system which takes and treats sewerage. To put it bluntly, the system is getting ready to burst at the seams.

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At present there are 271 wastewater treatment works serving 90% of our population. Historic underfunding means that many of these are either at, or are rapidly approaching, full capacity.

That means we can't accept new connections for new developments - houses, offices, factories, hotels, hospitals, or schools. Development will be severely curtailed or completely frozen.

There are already 99 areas, including towns such as Larne, Ballymena, Newry, Cookstown, Limavady, Armagh and parts of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, where job creation isn't being maximised. People are being denied the choice of where they can live and Government and councils are losing tax and rates revenue that would help pay for vital public services. If action is not taken this experience will become the norm across Northern Ireland.

The other casualty will be the environment.

Inadequate funding will create inadequate environmental protections. That means more untreated water entering our rivers, loughs and seashores and negative impacts for public health, wildlife and the quality of our beaches and coastal bathing waters.

Unlike other UK water utilities, Northern Ireland Water is a Government company and a non-departmental public body. It is not permitted to hold cash reserves and investment levels are determined by Government on a yearly basis.

Since it was established in 2007, the recommended level of funding from the independent Utility Regulator has been met by Government in just three years.

In the 2015 funding round Northern Ireland Water received just one-third of the £2.8bn programme it had identified. As a result the upgrade of 81 of our largest wastewater treatment works was deferred.

No small business could plan for the future within such a straitjacket, let alone a company responsible for supporting 875,000 homes with supply, distribution, collection and disposal of almost one billion litres of drinking and used water every day, across 41,000km of water mains and sewers.

As our 25-year strategy outlines, we also need to address unprecedented structural changes. These include a growing and ageing population, a growing economy and enhanced environmental protections. Climate change is also leading to more adverse weather conditions.

Consequently, we need to invest to make the system resilient against more droughts, more water usage restrictions and more flooding. Combined with historic underfunding, this has all the makings of a perfect storm.

We do, however, have it within our grasp to ensure that this coming storm blows itself out. I am confident that Northern Ireland Water can continue to support, rather than inhibit, our economy and environment.

Northern Ireland Water has never been in better operational shape. It has the skills, the capacity and the strategy to meet the challenge.

We also still have time; a window of opportunity to invest properly in our water security. What we lack, however, is the means.

Northern Ireland Water is working with the Utility Regulator to provide Government with a recommendation of how much investment is required between 2021 and 2027. We calculate that £2.5bn is needed, including £1bn to address wastewater, flooding and drainage problems in Belfast alone.

Funding at this level will enable us to address 70% of our wastewater capacity problems, while protecting drinking water and enhancing environmental protection. I appreciate, though, that £2.5bn is not a small sum of money in these days of constrained public finances.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a functioning Executive, our vital water infrastructure hasn't been given the political focus it deserves.

We can prevaricate no longer. To progress matters, I urge the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Finance to develop options on how to provide sustainable financing solutions and good governance for Northern Ireland Water by engaging with industry experts.

At some stage either the Executive will be reconstituted or the Secretary of State will need to progress outstanding strategic decisions. In anticipation, this work can help inform the choices that lie ahead.

Water is a precursor to everything that we do. It is the source of our wealth and our health - it lubricates the engine of growth.

If we don't take advantage of this limited window of opportunity then the cogs that keep society's engine turning will begin to seize up.

Northern Ireland is not in the midst of a water crisis, but we will face one if we don't change direction now.

Northern Ireland Water stands ready to ensure that Northern Ireland can fulfil its potential to have a cleaner, greener and more prosperous future - we just need the political direction to make it happen.

Dr Len O'Hagan is chairman of Northern Ireland Water

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