I have a published statement that will be circulated to Members from which I will read excerpts due to the restriction on time. I thank the House for making time available to make these statements today.
Despite the temperatures having fallen back to more normal values this week, Met Éireann is forecasting only small amounts of rain for the rest of this week and most of next week as well. This means that there will be little or no alleviation in the drought conditions we are currently experiencing. The drought conditions are expected to persist in the medium and longer term.
However, the main feature of the weather, along with the sunshine, has been the absence of rain, which has given us drought. The main consequences of this are for our water supplies, for water quality and inland fisheries, for wildlife and fires and for agriculture.
Probably the single biggest challenge arising from the drought conditions for the coming weeks, if not months, will be maintaining drinking water supply across the country. Irish Water has been managing a very difficult and evolving situation and is doing everything possible to maintain supplies. The Irish Water crisis management team began work as soon as this warm weather came into view in June and is meeting daily to monitor both demand and water supply production capacity around the country, and is taking steps to supply water where supplies are at risk. Water production is being maintained at record levels to deal with the increased demand. Local authority crews are busy identifying and fixing leaks to take pressure off the system and Irish Water has mobilised additional crews at critical locations to support local authority efforts. Irish Water has extended the ban on the use of hosepipes in domestic settings nationwide with effect from midnight on 5 July and is urging people everywhere to conserve water.
I have visited its headquarters with the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, to see the work it is doing and we must give credit to its team for the proactive approach it has taken to date. Of its nearly 1,000 water supply systems, nine schemes are currently experiencing severe drought, 51 are in drought condition and a further 77 are in potential drought situations. Irish Water is implementing its response plans to provide supplies of water to customers in schemes affected by the current drought conditions. We have been working to ensure inter-agency collaboration and support for Irish Water in putting in place alternative water supplies and distribution arrangements for those schemes already experiencing severe drought conditions. The agriculture community and those with their own wells are also affected, as groundwater levels in aquifers are declining. The National Federation of Group Water Schemes has issued advice on conservation measures and is working to support its members on the ground.
The overriding concern will be for the longer term and the supply of drinking water in late summer and autumn. There appears to be little prospect of getting the levels of rainfall that would alleviate the drought conditions in the short term. As the drought is likely to persist, and groundwater and lake and river levels come under greater pressure right across the country, it is prudent to introduce restrictions such as reduced water pressure at night on a much wider scale with a view to conserving our water supplies in the longer term. We need to plan not merely for July or August but also for September and even October.
It is critically important that everybody - businesses and private individuals - makes every effort to support the responsible use of water. This means avoiding unnecessary usage, repairing leaks promptly and generally conserving water.
On Tuesday, 26 June, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued a national "condition red" wild land fire danger notice in response to the drought resulting from the warm weather event. This was extended on 6 July and again yesterday as drought conditions persist and vegetation remains extremely dry and flammable right across the country. Fire services are making up to 100 responses to wild land fire incidents every day, which represents a decrease since the peak of 160 responses per day on 3 July. Although fire services are coping with the current level of incidents, the number of incidents to which they normally respond every day has doubled and this is putting pressure on fire services. I wish to express my appreciation for the Air Corps helicopter personnel who have been called in to assist with wild land fire-fighting for the past two weeks.
As the drought continues, flammable conditions for fire will remain. This underlines the need for care to prevent wild land fires from starting. Controlled burning of stubble by farmers is banned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Social media is being used to make people aware of the wild land fire risk. People visiting or hiking in the countryside should not light fires. Reports indicate that a significant number of recent wild land fires were caused by careless discarding of matches and cigarette ends. We must sustain our fire prevention efforts. Smoke from wild land fires can cause issues with air quality. Our local authority fire services are working with the EPA and the HSE to monitor situations which could cause difficulties for people who are susceptible to breathing difficulties.
As the lead Department for co-ordinating the response to severe weather events, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has been active since 21 June and is continuing to work closely with the sectors most affected by the current conditions. The drought is presenting the biggest challenge at the moment. Along with the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, I attended the weekly inter-agency review meeting that was held yesterday, at which consideration was given to issues arising from the drought associated with the extended period of warm weather being enjoyed in this country. Last week, we appealed to the public to use water sparingly and to prevent wild land fires during what looks like being a long period of dry weather. Our view is that no emerging public safety issues at this time warrant the convening of the national emergency co-ordination group. The national directorate for fire and emergency management will keep the situation under review. The current level of co-ordination with relevant sectors will be continued to manage the issues within their remit.
As well as being winter-ready, we now have to be summer-ready. Householders, farmers and businesses of all kinds have to conserve water at every opportunity. We need to think about resilience and how we will cope if supplies are reduced. There might be a small amount of rain in the days ahead, but it will not change the overall picture. We have to conserve our water supplies for the weeks and months ahead. The evidence we heard at yesterday’s meeting indicates that people are heeding the conserve water message and being careful about fires. Water consumption has stabilised and the number of wild land fires is down. I thank the public for its response and for the community spirit that has been shown to date. I encourage all citizens to continue do their part in conserving our water supplies and preventing fires. This will allow people to enjoy the summer while the drought issues that are arising throughout the county are managed.