Water and Roads Infrastructure: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

notes the swift response and work of local authority workers during the cold weather emergency;

condemns Government for its slow national response to the recent weather crisis;

is concerned that no national co-ordination plan for severe weather emergencies is in place to co-ordinate local plans at a national level;

recognises the social and economic hardship caused by water restrictions and by local transport network disruptions;

recognises that an inefficient, outdated and fragmented water network has contributed to water problems across the State;

notes with concern that on average 43% of Ireland's treated water supply was lost through unidentified leaks before the recent severe cold weather;

notes the refusal of the Government to put additional financial measures in place to address severely damaged local and regional roads;

recognises that the 32% cut in the regional and local road upkeep budget implemented by the Department of Transport last year compounded damage caused by cold weather;

and calls on Government to:

establish a single water semi-State utility company to take over responsibility for water investment and management on a national basis;

reallocate future water funding from the Exchequer to prioritise water conservation;

examine all engineering resources of the State to ensure a rapid remedy to widespread burst water mains;

develop and test as a matter of priority a national severe weather emergency plan that outlines the actions to be taken by Government and its agencies; and

provide additional funding for the restoration of severely damaged local and regional roads for reasons of road safety and to minimise costly reconstruction costs caused by further deterioration.

I welcome the opportunity to move this motion and widen the debate on the issue of the response of our nation and our local authorities to what could be called the recent disasters in some cases due to recent adverse weather conditions. I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. In fairness to the Minister, I am aware he has been willing to go public and deal with many of the issues being raised with his Department and with the Government, when it appeared nobody else was dealing with some of the issues. However, that is where the compliments stop.

I was hoping the Senator would go on.

I am sure the Minister has no problem with that because it is important that we hear the debate. I understand there was a similar debate in the Lower House last week.

I want first to acknowledge the efforts of the local authorities in responding to what were unprecedented weather conditions. Prior to Christmas serious flooding occurred in many areas and over the Christmas heavy snowfall and icy conditions prevailed throughout the country. While initially it appeared to be short term bad weather, there is no doubt that it escalated into a crisis in many areas. It appeared to the people in the areas outside Dublin, and we must remember that one third of our population lives outside the Dublin region, that it was only when the weather started to affect Dublin city that the Government sat up and took notice. The Minister can clarify whether that is right or wrong but that is the way it appeared to those living in country areas, which literally came to a stop during that period.

I will not go into all the details concerning resources for local authorities and so on. Local authorities carried the usual amount of salt reserves to respond to poor weather conditions such as ice and snow. Their normal resources were available to them. I understand the National Roads Authority has overall responsibility for co-ordinating resources such as salt to keep our national primary routes and other roads open but we found out during the poor weather conditions that the salt reserves quickly diminished. There was a great deal of head scratching going on not only at local authority level but also at Government level because there was no plan B in place whereby emergency reserves of salt and resources could be got into the country. I shudder to think what the outcome would have been if the very icy conditions had continued for a further week because I understand salt reserves were at a minimum at that stage. Fortunately, the thaw occurred.

We must learn from our mistakes but listening to the response from Government and its Ministers I am not sure they are willing to learn from the mistakes made during the problem we recently witnessed. I would prefer to see a Minister hold up his hand and say we may have had deficits in this area or weaknesses in the system elsewhere and we will positively address them. Instead, we had Ministers who were in denial about the fact there was not a national co-ordinated response.

I refer briefly to an article inThe Irish Times by Tom Clonan and Mary Minihan. It states:

The Department of the Environment is the Government department with sole responsibility for identifying emergency weather conditions, reacting to the events and driving Government's response, according to a Government document.

The Irish Times has learned of a document outlining precisely which department is responsible for responding to a range of man-made and natural disasters.

The article further states:

In relation to extreme weather — such as the snow and icy conditions experienced of late — the document identifies the Department of the Environment as the lead government department with sole responsibility for identifying the emergency, reacting to it and driving a central government response.

No lead agency such as local authorities, the HSE or an Garda Síochána are identified as having what is described as a "lead response role". They are, however, identified as having a "principal support role".

We should reflect on that because I recall those Ministers who were in the country and those interested enough to return to deal with the problems and the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, said clearly that it was a matter for local authorities. I dispute that fact, and most reasonable people would have disputed it because the local authorities responded as best they could with the limited resources available to them but what was needed was a national co-ordinated effort from Government. When the adverse weather conditions became extreme, alarm bells should have sounded and responsibility for certain actions allocated to various people, whether it was at local, regional or national level. To give the Army credit, its members were willing and able to come into action and assist people who were isolated and get supplies to those who were in trouble. However, it was managed in a willy-nilly manner and left to local authorities to contact their own barracks when there should have been a national response with Garda resources being allocated from a national control centre and local authorities giving them clear direction as regards the resources and manpower allocations they could give them.

We now know it was the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I understand that many years ago there was to be a national response plan in place, and while there were many documents and much talk about drafting the plan, it was never approved by Government and never officially put in place. The Minister might clarify that matter for us because it is our understanding that the national emergency response plan was never finalised or fully approved by Government and, as we saw of late, never implemented.

I will deal briefly with the water issues and then the roads. As amusing as it might seem, due to freezing conditions and people leaving taps running water conservation quickly became an issue during the bad weather. We saw the effect the weather had on a number of substandard networks of water systems that are in place in our constituent local authority areas, where entire new housing estates were without water for weeks on end due to substandard installation of water networks. Local authorities seem to be shrugging their shoulders, so to speak, on the issue. I believe it is local authorities' responsibility to enforce proper standards in the installation of water networks and infrastructure. However, many of them will argue the bonds used as security against substandard installation would not even come near the cost of re-installing a water network. There is much work to be done in putting right existing substandard water systems. Residents who were the victims of the big freeze were let down by substandard water systems installed by developers in some areas and local authorities in others.

Fine Gael has argued that as water is such an important resource, an overarching water agency to regularly maintain and conserve the water network and its infrastructure should be established, something similar to how the ESB oversees the electricity network. It is not an attempt to take responsibility away from local authorities as they would have a role as agents for the national body in carrying out maintenance and minor installations. It is strange that in some areas there is no interconnection between various local authorities' water supplies. Every local authority is selfish in protecting its water sources and not sharing them with neighbouring areas.

As water is an asset, it is important we have systematic maintenance systems for the water network. Every waterway, gully, inlet, channel, dyke and stream should be digitally mapped with each local authority assigned to the upkeep of its area. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should send a directive to local authorities to oblige them to carry out essential maintenance to all waterways. Unfortunately, the lack of essential maintenance to drainage systems was the main reason there was much flood damage caused to our road network. I would hate to see large investment being made to restore our road network only for it to be destroyed by more floods caused by a lack of clear waterways and drainage systems.

Much work needs to be done to co-ordinate local authorities in responding to flooding, road damage and water conservation. Over 40% of the water supply leaking into the ground is unacceptable and must be tackled.

I am delighted to second the motion and welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I echo Senator Paudie Coffey's comments about the Minister seeming to be the only Cabinet member to have a handle on the difficulties encountered during the severe weather at the beginning of the year. It was in marked contrast to the role played by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

Many residents in counties Kilkenny and Carlow believe their local authorities dealt effectively with the difficulties presented by the severe weather conditions. However, there seems to have been a complete failure at Government level to grasp the seriousness of the situation soon enough. Senator Paudie Coffey made the point that once an issue affects Dublin, the Government is forced into action. The recent severe weather was no exception, showing the Government not taking national action until the weather conditions extended to the Dublin region. That was disappointing to those of us who do not live there.

I agree with Senator Paudie Coffey's call for a significant investment in the water network and the establishment of a national body to oversee domestic and commercial water provision. Producing water is a costly business yet almost half of it is lost in the pipe network. While some local authorities have invested in upgrading their networks to ensure a reduction of water loss, the figure still stands at 40% which is unacceptable. The significant difficulties for local authorities in funding their own water management programmes due to the collapse of development levies, a decrease of 80% from what they were at their peak, was brought to my attention in counties Kilkenny and Carlow. Most of those levies were invested in water conservation measures and laying new pipe networks. This shortfall now will have to be met from some other quarter. The recent bad weather has exacerbated the problem and led to more damage in old pipe networks.

The only criticism I have of the Minister relates to the road network. On "Prime Time" during the middle of the weather crisis, he claimed funding for local governments has not been significantly touched when in fact funding for local government road programmes has been. Flooding in November followed by ice in January has led to the rapid deterioration of the local roads network in some parts of the country. I do not accept the Minister for Transport's claim that no additional funding can be found for the local roads network. There is a strong case for diverting funds from some of the national roads programmes which are coming in below budget. In Carlow, it is estimated that repairing the damage of its network will cost €7.5 million. Local government depends very much on its funding from central government. With the collapse in development levies, it depends even more so. Will the Minister, along with the Department of Transport, look at granting additional funding to the worst affected parts of the country? Next Friday, there will be a special meeting of south Kilkenny local authority members and officials with Oireachtas Members to discuss the damage done to the road network. A letter will be sent to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport requesting additional funding for repairing the area's network. I hope the Government will be in position to look favourably on that application by the local authority in Kilkenny.

There is also the question of the allocation the Government gives to local authorities for roads and road repair, and the flexibility that is contained within that allocation — whether local authorities have discretion to spend that money on the repair of local roads rather than the restructuring programmes.

It is worth pointing out that significant investment was made in the past 15 years in particular in local roads in terms of tarmacing work done on local, primary, secondary and tertiary roads, and most of those repaired are in good condition and survived the recent bad weather relatively intact. I would hate to see a situation whereby local authorities would have to spend all the funding from the Department on repairing the damage done in January of this year. It is essential that we continue the programme of upgrading roads that were not reached in the past 15 years. Such long-term investment holds when the weather turns against us. As Senator Coffey pointed out, there is a danger with any repair works carried out that unless other essential works like the cleaning of drains and shores and other works that were routinely done by local authorities around the country but cannot be done now because of shortage of manpower, are recommended, any investment and money spent by local authorities on the repair of these local roads is in danger of being washed away. I ask that the Minister take on board Senator Coffey's suggestion about contacting local authorities and ensuing there is a regimented plan put in place to ensure basic works at local level in terms of cleaning water courses happen again. It is mundane work and it is not sexy. Local authorities have got out of the business largely of doing that basic work. If that work is done, however, it will save and guarantee a longer-term investment in the road infrastructure.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after ‘‘Seanad Éireann'' and substitute the following:—

"— shares the Government's appreciation of the work of local authorities, Health Service Executive, An Garda Síochána, Defence Forces, Civil Defence and other statutory bodies in responding to the November 2009 flooding and recent severe weather events;

recognises the contribution by voluntary organisations and individuals and the assistance provided to their fellow citizens during the two weather events;

commends the Government's use of the National Emergency Response Coordination Committees to provide direction to the management of the response issues during the flooding and severe weather events;

recognises the significant funding made available by the Government over recent years under the Water Services Investment Programme in response to specific environmental, public health and economic needs;

welcomes, despite the current difficult economic situation, the provision of €508 million in 2010 for the Water Services Investment Programme;

notes the Minister's intention to effect a reprioritisation in the new Water Services Investment Programme 2010 to 2012 with a very significant increase in investment in water conservation aimed at addressing the unacceptably high levels of leakage in local authority water supplies;

notes the significant progress being made to implement water quality management and flood relief planning on a river basin basis;

notes the progress being made by local authorities to repair water mains damaged on foot of recent severe weather events;

notes that during the prolonged severe weather 14,000 km of the public road network which carries about 60% of total traffic and about 80% of commercial traffic were gritted daily and kept open for the duration of the severe weather by local authorities;

acknowledges that the national road network together with other key strategic roads and public transport routes was kept open to traffic at all times;

notes that €5.7 billion has been contributed from the Exchequer for local and regional roads since 1997 and that despite the difficult financial situation over €411 million is being made available for 2010;

welcomes that the priority for regional and local roads for 2010 is to safeguard the existing investment and repair the damage caused by the recent severe weather; and

commends the Minister's intention to review the operation of the emergency response arrangements under the Framework for Major Emergency Management in relation to the two weather events to learn from the experience gained and to ascertain if any improvements are necessary and should be applied in managing the emergency response to future such events."

I reserve my right to speak later.

I am pleased to join with Members to debate the recent severe weather event which we all encountered in December and January. We should not forget those people who are still experiencing the effects of it, mostly through recovering from injuries received from falls on the ice or where there are difficulties with water supply. One matter on which I think we can all agree is that severe weather will disrupt daily activity and the key question is how we, as a society, cope with that disruption. We must also keep the disruption in perspective, especially the frequency and duration of its occurrence.

In assessing the Irish response, it would be useful to compare the Irish experience with other European countries where similar conditions and issues presented for the authorities and the public. The comparisons show that the disruption here was no worse, and in many cases much less severe, than most other European countries.

Significant traffic delays during snowfalls was a common experience across Europe. In this respect we kept the main arteries open with the assistance of the national co-ordinated response early in January, which ensured that salt supplies were managed to best effect. Airports were forced to close during snowfall in other European countries but only for short periods here, and where train services suffered limited delays here, they were halted in other countries.

To comment on the contribution of Senator Coffey, we managed the salt supplies. If one looks at what occurred in Britain, they had six days' salt supply; we had ten. We managed in a far better way than they did in Britain.

With due respect, we were lucky. The thaw came.

That is a simple fact. Of course, we were lucky in the sense that all over Europe there was significant demand for salt and, therefore, it was very difficult. However, I can tell Senator Coffey that the national emergency committee co-ordinated that. We ensured that salt got to the areas where it was most needed and also ensured that we got our embassies onto it to get salt supplies from elsewhere. Rock salt was in very short supply at that stage.

In addition, it was not the case that the emergency was declared when Dublin was affected. The fact is that it became clear to us that the weather was set to continue, and that is what Met Éireann had said to us. Met Éireann stated as well that it would cause disruption, but at that stage people were back at work and school and that was the real difficulty. We had to deal with a range of issues such as electricity supply and diesel for engines. Senator Coffey spoke of people putting their hands up etc. Fair enough, let us go out there, get an analysis of what happened and see did we cope adequately. I believe that if one does so, the result will show that we did.

Let me explain the position about the arrangements for an integrated response to emergencies here. It is a principle that emergency response builds from the first response of the emergency services where the emergency event occurs, that is, the local units of the fire service, Garda and ambulance service. A response can be escalated from there as required, up to and including declaring a major emergency. It may be appropriate, when the situation escalates to an exceptional extent, for a whole of Government approach to be initiated in support of the local response. International experience is that emergency management should be carried out by people who best know the local situation and who are able to engage with individuals and community and voluntary organisations, who also play an invaluable role. This local co-ordination approach was very evident in both the flooding of November and the more recent severe weather.

During the period up to the start of the year, the main issue was accessibility of the transport network. Local authorities, I am happy to say, performed in a magnificent manner in keeping the main priority road network open to the public and the business community so that normal daily activity was able to continue uninterrupted. In the Dáil last week, there were assertions that the country came to a standstill. As we all know, it did not. This is due to local authority workers working over the Christmas and new year periods to keep the roads open. I take this opportunity to commend them for their work in this regard.

If co-ordination arrangements were not in place, then there may be a case for criticism of the Government. In 2006, the Government approved the Framework for Major Emergency Management. There followed, in the two year period 2006 to 2008, an intensive exercise in developing the major emergency development programme including both local and regional inter-agency development and training, which culminated in the adoption of major emergency plans by the local authorities, Health Service Executive areas and divisions of the Garda Síochána on 30 September 2008.

One of the points raised in the motion is the perceived lack of a national severe weather plan. We could argue or quibble over the titles of documents but there is a plan in place to deal with major emergencies including severe weather events.

It did not seem like it.

I am referring to the framework document and the suite of guidance and protocol documents which, together with the local major emergency plans on which response is built, form a plan for dealing with not only single major emergencies but also events such as we have had since November last. This suite of documents enables the principal response agencies to prepare for and make a co-ordinated response to a variety of major emergencies whenever a major emergency occurs, including severe weather.

They used the procedures and training they received in responding to the difficulties encountered in their areas. The framework identifies local authorities as the lead agency with responsibility to co-ordinate all other services in cases of severe weather. The local authority major emergency plans also include a sub-plan for responding to severe weather events. The framework and other plans, which I have identified, are available on the Department's website, a special websitewww.mem.ie and websites of the principal response agencies.

In the short time available I will explain briefly the role of organisations at local and central levels. My Department's role is to ensure the local authorities are prepared to respond promptly to deal with issues directly under their remit. Second, the Department also has a role to ensure that authorities act in co-operation with the other principal response agencies, the voluntary agencies and the Defence Forces to limit the effects on individuals whose lives may be put at risk or may be exposed to serious hardship. The management of the emergency response on the ground then falls to the local authorities and the other response agencies.

The framework which I have referred to also provides for linking between local and central Government levels. At central level there was no unnecessary delay in responding to the emerging weather situation. From the second half of December, staff from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Transport were liaising with local authorities and the NRA and monitoring the ongoing weather situation. When the period of severe weather was forecast to remain in place for a prolonged period, when business and schools were about to resume after Christmas and the possibility of a shortage of salt for the roads emerged, the need for the National Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee arose. I convened the committee at the request of the Taoiseach in the first week of the year before the position became acute. This is the complementary role set out in the framework which engages the national level.

The committee oversaw the co-ordinated response at national and local levels, ensured that all statutory agencies co-operated efficiently and effectively and that any decisions required at national level were dealt with properly and promptly. It is not a function of the committee to take responsibility from the Departments and agencies.

Having attended the committee and seen the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied there was an active and sustained response to the recent severe weather conditions by the local authorities and the other principal response agencies, with the support of the Defence Forces and co-operation of other statutory and voluntary bodies. It will be important to learn from the recent experiences and, accordingly, a review of the emergency response co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements will be undertaken. This will assist in determining what further improvements can be achieved and in identifying any relevant lessons that can be learnt from the two experiences here and in other European countries during recent weeks.

By and large our national roads, other key strategic roads and public transport routes were kept open for traffic during the 24 days that the severe weather lasted. With careful driving, most of our secondary road network remained passable through the period, with limited exceptions especially in upland areas. It is certainly the case that road and footpath conditions were difficult and dangerous where iced over but most roads were open and people were able to get about as they needed to, albeit perhaps more slowly. The majority of public transport services continued to operate in Dublin and nationwide, albeit with some cancellation or curtailment during the worst of the snow. As part of the overall review of this recent experience, the Department of Transport will re-examine the priorities for gritting of roads. At present, the priorities are national roads and other roads that carry significant traffic volumes, including heavy goods vehicles and public transport services.

What can be considered for the future is whether there are ways of harnessing community effort by, for example, local authorities supplying salt to local communities and business districts. Another area for review is how public information was handled and what can be improved. Local authorities made very effective use of local and community radio. The public transport websites were regularly up to date. Some local authority websites provided detailed road gritting maps and the Road Safety Authority was very helpful in getting out targeted road safety messages. Best practice examples will be built upon and any information gaps or failures will be identified.

The Minister for Transport is conscious that local authorities have, and will continue to incur, significant additional expenditure as a direct result of the prolonged severe weather. Road grants from the Exchequer for the coming year will be in excess of €1.1 billion for national roads and approximately €411 million for local and regional roads. This is a significant investment in our transport infrastructure on behalf of the Government despite the difficult Exchequer finances. Local authorities are generally advised to set aside contingency sums within their overall roads funding for weather related works. The Minister for Transport will assess the additional costs involved over and above the normal provision when finalising the allocation of regional and local road grants. It may be necessary to change priorities in the 2010 allocations, taking account of the available financial resources. In this matter I am keen for local authorities to contribute more from their own resources for non-national roads. In the meantime, the Minister for Transport has issued a circular to local authorities asking them to give priority to the repair of damage to regional and local roads caused by recent weather and authorising them to incur expenditure under certain grant categories of up to 25% of the amount allocated for these categories in April 2009, pending the allocation of the 2010 grants. He has also allowed local authorities flexibility to revise their 2010 restoration improvement programmes.

The severe weather episodes this winter have identified a number of weaknesses in our water services infrastructure. It has also shown that even though we are fortunate to have an abundance of raw water in Ireland, there is a lack of recognition of the real costs of treating this water and distributing it to our homes and businesses. The length of the public water services network, which amounts to more than 20,000 km of pipes, 8,000 km of which are in the greater Dublin area, poses challenges for ongoing maintenance and management.

The recent prolonged period of especially low temperatures caused difficulties for most local authorities in maintaining normal water supplies. The initial difficulties arose mainly from frozen supplies, but as the thaw set in, further damage was caused by the moving ground. During a fortnight period, typical demand was up to 25% greater than maximum water treatment capacity in most authorities. This was as a result of leakage and some consumer usage to avoid frozen domestic pipes. Excess demand resulted in the depletion of treated water at reservoirs, which would normally provide two days storage, the international norm. Demand has been progressively reducing through local authority efforts to find and fix leaks and manage supplies, and conservation by consumers. While it will take some time to restore reservoirs to pre-Christmas levels, I understand the situation has improved substantially during the past week especially in the Dublin area, where the need for night time restrictions is expected to ease during the coming two weeks.

Some of the incidents of burst water pipes in housing estates throughout the country, which caused significant hardship for householders, could have been avoided by proper workmanship and by developers ensuring that construction standards for new housing fully met basic requirements. My Department will write to local authorities to remind them of the development management requirements under the building regulations, the site development guidelines and to impress on them the need for regular monitoring and enforcement to ensure a consistent application of these standards in residential developments.

While €4.6 billion has been provided by the Exchequer to local authorities for investment in this sector during the past nine years, it was against the background of historical under-investment. In addition to catching up with these deficits, the sector has had to respond to the increased demand arising during a time of economic and population growth. This investment has led to significant progress. Substantial improvements have been made in the quality of water in the group water sector and some 480 major public water and waste water schemes have been completed since 2000. These schemes have delivered an increase in drinking water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 855,000, and have led to improvements in compliance with the requirements of the EU urban waste water treatment directive on secondary waste water treatment facilities, which now stands at some 92% compared to 25% at the start of 2000.

The renewed programme for Government has a commitment to maintaining record levels of investment in water. This year some €508 million has been allocated, one of the few areas of capital provision which received an increase from the 2009 provision. This is evidence of the Government's commitment to this important area in these difficult economic times. The programme priorities for the coming period include the need to mainstream and enhance water conservation activity, to address environmental and public health compliance issues, to support the overall strategic and sustainable development of gateways and hubs and to support employment creation.

An important aspect of the new water services investment programme for 2010 to 2012, which will be launched towards the end of this month, will be the targeting of investment on water conservation. It does not make economic sense to provide for further water supply capacity in areas with unacceptability high levels of unaccounted for water; the leakage levels in some areas are stark and must be tackled. We have spent €130 million on various water conservation measures during the past seven years. This investment has mainly been focused on establishing water management systems and active leak detection and repair programmes. Most counties have now completed or are close to completing the initial phases of this programme. This provides an important platform for identifying the areas which have the highest leakage levels and for targeting investment in mains rehabilitation. Local authorities have identified some €300 million in contracts to commence in the period 2010-12, with further schemes to be progressed through planning in that timeframe. I will be making funding available as part of the next water services investment programme. This acceleration of the water conservation programme will allow for some 600 km of mains to be rehabilitated and will make real inroads into addressing leakage levels in local authority systems. This investment is only part of the overall action on water conservation. I am grateful to the public response to calls by me and by local authorities to conserve water in light of current shortages. This needs to be sustained.

I note Fine Gael has proposed that a new semi-State water utility company should be established to assume responsibility for water investment and management nationally. I am somewhat bemused by Fine Gael's ability to criticise the Government for the number of State agencies in existence while at the same time proposing the establishment of a new one. I see no reason for the introduction of a further new body.

Is 50% leakage not reason enough? It is totally unacceptable.

I can only conclude that Fine Gael wants to establish such an agency because the party wants to privatise our water services. Such a move might be in line with Fine Gael's call for a fire-sale of State assets——

The Minister is in denial.

The Minister without interruption, please.

——but it is one to which I am completely opposed.

The Minister is in denial.

We will get the opportunity to implement it soon.

The Senator might be in denial.

Some 50% of our water supply is leaking into the ground.

The Minister to continue, without interruption.

Does the Minister believe that is okay?

Of course not.

That is what the Minister is saying.

When the Senator's party leader was asked a simple question about water meters, he could not answer it.

What is Fine Gael's policy on the issue? I do not believe it has one.

The Minister criticised the policy and is now saying we do not have one. He should make up his mind.

There is a structure in place to ensure the delivery of water services——

Some 50% of the water supply is leaking into the ground and the Minister is happy with this. That is the message he is sending.

——one that will be strengthened further with the completion of the river basin management planning process.

The development of national water policy and the underpinning legislation come within the remit of my Department. Water services legislation was consolidated and modernised with the passage of the Water Services Act 2007. A suite of water quality legislation has been put in place in the past few years.

The Minister's colleague in Galway was not too happy about the water services available. What did the Minister do about the matter? He did nothing.

It has seen the EPA take on an enforcement and compliance role in respect of the local authorities in terms of both drinking water and wastewater facilities.

In regard to the recent sustained period of severe weather, the critical consideration was the response of the relevant statutory agencies tasked with addressing emerging events. The response arrangements of the statutory and voluntary agencies in dealing with the developing problems were substantially tested. The arrangements put in place worked but there is room for reflection and a review of the lessons learned which can be built on and which may be of assistance in responding to future such events.

I welcome the Minister and compliment my Fine Gael colleagues on tabling such an important motion. However, I am disappointed that, once again, we have this ding-dong approach between the two sides of the House. This is unhelpful, particularly because there is significant agreement between the motion and the amendment to it on the problem the country faces. There is a nuance on both sides to gain party political advantage, which is regrettable and not a good idea.

I very much agree with Senator Coffey that river maintenance has been poor in certain areas, particularly around the River Shannon. There is no doubt whatsoever that this has had an impact through increased flooding. We need to return to good care and maintenance of the river system which has been ignored in recent times.

I would like the Minister to address the following issue. Part of the problem, particularly in areas such as Cork city, was caused by the release of enormous amounts of water from the hydroelectric system or a dam. There are a number of reasons this should happen in an emergency, one of which might be a potential fracturing of the dam which might not necessarily be caused by weather conditions but by a structural failure. I could understand it in terms of a structural failure but it seems bizarre to do so in a flood. If there is a flood and if, owing to flooding, the reservoirs are too high and dam limits are being reached, surely to God people know that downstream the position will be just as bad, if not worse. It must have been absolutely maddening for those affected to realise part of the reason their houses were flooded in up to 10 ft. of water was the deliberate release of water into the system. Is it not possible to look at alternative methods of water management?

At the heart of this issue is the question of water management, ranging from simple measures such as people being advised to leave their taps running, which caused a huge drain on the system, although it was understandable if they were afraid their pipes would burst and so on, to the health aspects. It was not as a result of the snowfall and the severe weather conditions that we had, for example, severe pollution of water in Galway and other places caused by campylobacter virus and e.coli infection. We do not seem to be capable of managing our water resources, which I find aggravating.

Water management is a serious problem domestically and internationally. I remember meeting Shimon Peres. I was very impressed and interested because this happened quite a number of years ago and one of the issues he highlighted prophetically was that of water, that it would become one of the principal areas of conflict. However, we do not have much of an excuse because we have what the Minister described as raw water, God knows in abundance. If one looks out the window this evening, one will see we are not deficient in this resource. Water is available; it is a question of its management.

Just as in the macrocosm, in the microcosm the population is a pressure factor. We have a population which is increasing in size, particularly in the city of Dublin. This is exerting pressure on the water system. It is not appropriate to learn that in the Dublin area 50% of the water supply is leaking away and that there is approximately 8,000 km or other hughe figyure of water piping which is more than 80 years old. One cannot blame the Minister for this. The problem was let slide for 80 years. I remember, when the pipes were dug up in North Great George's Street, that there were still in place some wooden pipes dating from the 18th century.

Current population growth estimates have led experts to believe that by 2031 the population of Dublin will be approximately 2.25 million. The population is currently 1.5 million and it consumes 550 million litres of water a day, which figure is expected to rise to approximately 800 million litres by 2031. If these estimates are accurate, by 2016 the Dublin area will require an alternative source of water. I am not sure if this issue has been addressed in the debate. That is another significant political and strategic element. This must be done to avoid serious water rationing and economic stagnation. The increase in the demand for water in the past ten years has essentially been dealt with by fixing leaks in the piping system, which is appropriate and of which we all approve, and expanding the limits of current facilities. However, by 2016 these measures will not be enough. The rate of leakage is 43% in some areas, although some say it is as high as 50%.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has provided a budget of €119 million to repair pipes in the greater Dublin area betweem 2006 and 2012 but more repairs are needed. Some of our urban areas are not expected to recover from the recent water shortage problems caused by the severe weather conditions and the spate of leaks and broken pipes for another three to four months. It astonishes me, as a citizen of Dublin, to see water carriers in the suburbs. That is an astonishing confession of failure.

The Vartry tunnel which supplies almost 80 million litres of water a day to the Dublin region is in desperate need of repairs. If something goes wrong with it, we will not be able to supply Dublin with water. I do not know if the Minister listens to Lyric FM but Gay Byrne was on about it. It was great fun. He said a fellow had told him there was a leak and that if one drove an articulated lorry over it, there would be a sound, the phonetics of which I cannot copy; perhaps the parliamentary reporter will report: "Phonetic illustration supplied by Senator Norris". It was very funny on the radio but, by God, it would not be funny if it happened.

It is perfectly clear that the Government needs to find an alternative source of water for the greater Dublin area. There is no question that it must also repair the pipes, but that will not be enough. As the water reserves and facilities that supply Dublin also supply surrounding areas such as Dún Loaghaire and Fingal, it is critical that an alternative water supply is found for the Dublin region. Currently, it is supplied, for the most part, from four main plants, Ballymore Eustace and Leixlip, both of which draw from the River Liffey; Ballyboden which draws from the River Dodder and Roundwood which draws from the Vartry river. By 2016, at the latest, even with expanded facilities, these plants will no longer be able to keep up with the estimated demand for water.

We need to look at the River Shannon option, an issue which has raised screams from west of the River Shannon. It is proposed that extraction points be built along the River Shannon. Suggested points of extraction are Lough Rea and Lough Derg, with one option involving storage in former cutaway bogs to allow winter water to be stored for later use in dry summers, and the Parteen basin, with extraction near Parteen Weir. The River Shannon option would require new pipes to be built to bring water to Dublin, as well as pumping stations. It would also give the Government the ability to provide local authorities along the pipes' route to the Dublin region with access to water.

Desalination is too expensive and not practical. Therefore, I do not believe it will happen. There is much to be done in terms of repairs and implementing new imaginative proposals.

I am 100% in support of water meters. One should pay for what one gets but there is no excuse for not being able to have a water supply in this climate.

The Minister referred to the attitude of Fine Gael and I hope Senator Coffey or one of his colleagues will reply. The Minister challenged Fine Gael to state if it was intent on privatising water services. If it is, let it come out and state this. I would oppose it 100%. There are facilities and utilities which should always be in public ownership. Even in the case of the monopolies board, services such as water, electricity and so on were always kept separate. They must be kept separate and I will support the Minister in that regard. I hope Fine Gael was not referring to the privatisation of water services.

It was not — we have it from no less a source than Senator Cummins.

The answer is no. We will see what the Green Party's policy is when it is announced later.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I commend the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, on his positive approach to the recent severe problems arising from the adverse weather conditions which were unprecedented. One of the good things which emerged from the recent bad spell was that the old meitheal concept was alive and well in Ireland, something about which I am very pleased. I record my deep appreciation of the response of the Government, the HSE, the Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, Civil Defence and other statutory bodies to the November 2009 floods and the recent severe weather conditions. It is important that I record my great appreciation of the efforts made by many locally elected members who rolled up their sleeves and stood in the breach. They also have to be commended. There was a great response from the community as a whole. The national emergency response co-ordination committee also did a marvellous job. It is very easy to criticise but as somebody who had to do without water for a week, Westmeath County Council and the Defence Forces stood in the breach in a meaningful way.

I am a committed local authority man; I always have been and always will be. I am a strong supporter of the concept of local government in towns, counties, county boroughs and boroughs. It needs to be upgraded and powers need to be enhanced. I am surprised, therefore, at Fine Gael. It is hypocritical to criticise the handling of water services by local authorities and lay blame at the door of the Government when the overwhelming majority of city and county councils are controlled by Fine Gael. It controls 28 out of 34 councils.

There are 29 county councils and five borough councils.

I am glad the Senator knows it.

This might improve it.

The people are always right.

Deputy Phil Hogan called for the setting up of a single water authority to take responsibility for water supply and investment from local authorities at a time when the Minister had recently introduced a Green Paper and the publication of a White Paper was imminent. This is a great opportunity for everybody to engage in the reform of local government, a matter on which I have spoken at length to my party. I hope everybody will take up the cudgel, grasp the nettle and do what has to be done to enhance the powers of local government. On the issue of water supply and services, the leader of Fine Gael did not answer the question when asked about water charges. He avoided it.

Something has to be done about water wastage, as the position is unacceptable. The Government has provided for significant investment in the water programme. Some practices during the cold spell were totally unacceptable, an issue referred to by Senator Coffey who mentioned that people had left taps running. Water is a food source.

I come from the country and remember a time many moons ago when I was a young lad when we were building an extension to our house. The contractor gave the price as a certain amount but there was a condition, namely, that we had to supply the water. As the youngest of a large family, I and my late brother had to carry water some 200 m up a hill and across a road. As a consequence, I appreciate the value of a water supply, especially on tap.

Non-national roads have taken a severe hammering owing to the weather conditions, but the people to whom my heart goes out are those whose homes were flooded. They woke up one morning and not only had their homes been flooded, the water had frozen. I feel very sorry for them.

We need a fresh approach to the conservation of water. In the past decade we have invested in water services to meet the historical deficit, improve water quality by providing for adequate treatment capacity to meet more rigorous standards for drinking water and wastewater and deal with population and economic growth which has led to an increase in demand for water services and environmental impacts on other water resources. Some €4.6 billion has been invested by the Exchequer since 2000 and it has had noticeable results. Some 480 water and wastewater schemes have been completed, which have resulted in an increase in the level of drinking water treatment and storage capacity to meet the needs of a population of 855,000, that is, 214 million and 1,324 million litres a day, respectively. The figure in respect of the European Union urban wastewater treatment directive on secondary wastewater treatment facilties now stands at some 92% compared to 25% at the start of 2000. Additional treatment capacity to meet the needs of a population of 3.6 million has been provided. However, we still have a journey to go, which is why the Government is committed in these difficult times to sustaining record investment in water services. Some €508 million has been provided for water services infrastructure in 2010. The average spend on water services in 2009 and 2010 will be up by 3% on the 2008 outturn. The Government will launch a new water services programme for the period 2010 to 2012 early this year, the central themes of which will be water quality and conservation. There is no question but that the water network has to be upgraded. We have taken important steps in this direction. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, whom I welcome to the House, to ensure the investment programme which has been ongoing for some years and is resulting in great improvements is continued.

Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scoilbe. There is no point worrying about flooding during the winter when the issue is pertinent in most areas. There has to be a co-ordinated approach to the flooding which has taken place in many towns. With Senator Coffey and members of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I will be travelling to Munster to visit the towns which were flooded in County Cork and it is hoped we will meet Senator McCarthy there. Similarly, we hope to visit other flooded areas. Something must be done about protection against flooding and water wastage, the latter of which arises from defaults in the network.

On behalf of my colleagues I thank Senator Coffey for tabling this motion on our national and local response to the incredibly harsh and unusual conditions we experienced over Christmas and the first two weeks of January. I start by acknowledging the enormous local and personal effort that went into combating the most severe effects of the weather crisis. In my constituency all outdoor employees, especially those responsible for gritting primary roads, put in a mammoth effort for the duration of the crisis. They worked extremely long hours in very difficult conditions. On Christmas Eve a gritting team was out in my constituency treating the roads at 2.30 in the morning. This House must recognise and commend those efforts by public employees. That does not always happen. I have nothing but praise for the work and effort put in by my local authority.

Rather than going down the route of political blame, it would be helpful to have a constructive debate and conversation about what went wrong and what worked. Some parts of the country performed better than others although all parts showed tremendous effort. Perhaps in some parts the results of those efforts were greater. Many of the problems were beyond the control of the authorities. We can learn about how a more effective response can help in future situations.

There is a significant aftermath from the weather crisis. Senator Glynn mentioned road conditions which are appalling on non-national routes. Something must be done. We may hope not to see this situation again in our lifetimes but the Minister must react to the current condition of our roads because they are extremely dangerous and are having an impact on the economic life of the country and on motorists. I challenge any Member of the House to take a look at the wheels and tyres of cars outside the capital. They will see that many people are driving on tyres which are unsafe because they have hit one pothole too many. This is not their fault because, financially speaking, January is a very tight month. However, the fact that there is an impact must be recognised by the House. The only way we can deal with it is by putting more money into our local authorities to allow them to improve and refurbish the road network.

I shall speak in specific terms about the total communications failure that defined the weather crisis. In a publication on co-ordination for major emergencies issued by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government it is stated:

The framework is designed primarily to provide for the protection, support and welfare of the public in times of emergency. Effective arrangements to ensure public safety in times of emergency also have the benefit of helping to safeguard the environment, the economy, infrastructure and property. The framework for major emergencies aims to ensure we are able to respond to emergencies at the national, regional and local level and to make sure that the essential services keep operating.

On that basis we must conclude that the framework failed in many of its objectives. Thousands of people throughout the country, including in my constituency, were affected for days. Countless older people were left trapped in their homes for the duration of the crisis. Many people were unable to get buses to work and for weeks on end many others were unable to use their cars to get to work. The local economy in some parts of east Meath ceased to operate for the length of the crisis. There were many accidents involving motorists and pedestrians over the three weeks in question.

Nobody claims that the weather we experienced was in any way typical of conditions in Ireland. What was entirely typical, however, was the absolute failure by Government to communicate a co-ordinated national response. That simply did not happen. It is without doubt entirely necessary that any emergency response framework should include multiple layers of Government. A top-down accident strategy would be impossible to implement given that much of the necessary work happens at local level. However, it must be understood that alleviation and action plan implementation can and should be distinct from the communication strategy that, logically, should surround an emergency response framework. While alleviation is complex and involves a multi-agency response, emergency communication should be clear and cohesive, with one voice in authority. Instead, the public had silence for weeks, followed by confused messages from Government, defensive comments and, very often, contradictory messages from the authorities.

This is not a difficult concept to grasp, yet the Government failed utterly to communicate any sense that there was a genuine co-ordinated response or that the situation was being managed on behalf of the public. I ask the Minister of State whether a communications strategy for emergency situations exists. That was not clear. Similarly, I would like him to clarify to the House that a review of emergency communications will be carried out in the light of the failures over Christmas.

I shall make some concrete, inexpensive and easily implementable suggestions. The following statement appears on the websitewww.emergencyplanning.ie:

For current information on severe weather issues please contact your local authority. You may access your local authority's website through the links button on this page.

That is the sum total of information as it appeared on the centralised emergency response website of the State. Passing the buck is not communicating. It creates confusion, a lack of cohesion and fragmented emergency responses. We need to look at this and ensure we put in place a more detailed co-ordinated response. We could do this by improving the amount of information available on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter that might be activated in emergencies to provide real-time and immediate updates on events and what to do. Social media offer an invaluable tool for connecting with people in a time of crisis following the cancellation of services due to bad weather. Eurostar, which operates between London, Paris and Brussels, was severely criticised for the breakdown in any kind of communications with its public and passengers. It is currently reviewing its entire communications strategy in light of these failures and I strongly suggest the Government should do likewise.

Even Opposition politicians understand that certain events are totally outside the control of the Government and present the apparatus of the State with very serious managerial and reactive challenges. However, there is no excuse for the farcical level of communications and run-for-cover mentality that characterised the response to the weather crisis. A simple example relates to the subsequent problems in water supply. On several message boards and blogs, ill-informed but well-meaning people advised others to leave the main household tap on a slow drip to avoid freezing pipes. Often, advice was confused and given out incorrectly. The Government allowed a vacuum to develop in the weather crisis which was filled by anger, poor advice and a damaging perception that nobody was managing the crisis.

I spoke in very specific terms today about how this type of situation might be managed better in the future. I would be very interested to hear the views of the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, on how communication, co-ordination and reassurance can be implemented more effectively

I welcome the Minister of State. I find the motion very interesting and am glad to speak on it. It is good that Fine Gael introduced it but, unfortunately, I cannot support it. The motion starts out by praising the work of the local authorities and condemning the Government, which is a very political statement. What is being said is that the councils did a great job and the Government an appalling one. Clearly, the problem that arose during the severe weather concerned the gritting of roads, or at least that is what people told me. Gritting roads is a matter for the National Roads Authority and for local authorities. The fact is, as previous speakers noted, some local authorities did well and others did not perform so well. I checked out local authority budgets. The winter maintenance programme deals with facilities for gritting roads. In recent years many councils have reduced considerably their amounts of winter maintenance. They did so because prior to this year there had not been any particularly bad weather and they saw an opportunity to reduce this sum in their budgets. This highlights the fact that the situation was a 20-year event. It may not continue to be such but it was this time. The fact remains that many local authorities were not properly prepared for the weather. That budgetary decision was made at local authority level, in many cases by the Fine Gael councillors on those authorities.

I shall move on because one of the main points of the motion deals with water and water services, matters I hold dear to my heart. Water is life and to have clean water is crucial. Despite the recession, the Government has shown that it takes this matter seriously by spending €500 million per annum on the water services investment programme. This represents an increase on the amounts spent in recent years and it is the highest amount we have ever spent on water services. This is despite the fact that we are in difficult economic times. I am of the view that trying to criticise the Government in respect of this matter is problematic.

The motion states that Seanad Éireann "notes with concern that on average 43% of Ireland's treated water supply was lost through unidentified leaks before the recent severe cold weather". The figure quoted is accurate and we are going to be obliged to deal with this matter. In the past seven years, some €140 million or €20 million per annum was spent on leak eradication. However, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, recently announced that €300 million will be spent on the eradication of leaks. This represents a fivefold increase. To say the Government is not acting is simply inaccurate. The Government has acted and it does have a plan.

We are thankful for the Green Party's input.

It must be acknowledged that when the Green Party entered Government, it prioritised water——

We acknowledge that.

——and we are spending on water.

Senator Ó Brolcháin, without interruption.

A previous speaker stated that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has done little in respect of Galway. However, there was a crisis involving cryptosporidium in the water supply in Galway. Unfortunately, it was not possible to solve this crisis in the three or four weeks prior to the election. However, the fact is that Galway is now the most cryptosporidium-free location in the world. It took approximately four months to achieve this — which was record time — but it was done.

A major issue regarding lead pipes and their use to carry water supplies also arose in Galway. I worked with the Minister to ensure this matter would be dealt with and this is being done at present. The position regarding lead pipes is not perfect, especially when one considers that there are many of them in use throughout the country. It is crucial that these would be replaced in a systematic fashion, particularly in view of the issue that arises with regard to water and lead pipes.

I was involved with the western river basin district management project. Such projects throughout Ireland and Europe and not based on borders, they are instead based on water catchment areas. In that context, there are some projects which traverse the Border with Northern Ireland. This is the right way to proceed in respect of water. The latter does not stop flowing because there is a boundary in place. For example, some of the water in the River Shannon actually originates in the North of Ireland. If there are problems with water in the North, these can emerge in the South as a result of the way rivers flow.

Most of the drinking water supplied to Galway city originates in the Galway County Council's area of remit. I agree with Fine Gael that an issue arises in this regard and that there must be co-ordination among local authorities. I am of the view that such co-ordination should happen at a regional rather than a national level. Nevertheless, I accept Fine Gael's point that further co-ordination is required. I commend the motion in that regard.

There is no doubt that much of the pipe network must be replaced. Senator Norris referred to transporting water from the Shannon to Dublin. I do not see this as the way forward, especially as more than 43% of treated water in Dublin disappears into the ground. It is wrong to blame the Minister or the Government for the fact that drinking water is running through 18th century pipes. We need to improve the position and eradicate the leaks. Anyone who cares to read up on this subject will discover that water is one of the currencies of the future. Water is becoming increasingly scarce worldwide and to have a proper, clean and healthy water supply is important, particularly when one considers that water is going to become an increasingly rare commodity. People can refer to economic difficulties but I would certainly choose water over money. If we had no water, we would be in major trouble. A clean water supply is an aim of this Government and it should also be an aim of any future Administration.

Bringing water to the east from the west would not be appropriate. We must have regard to the national spatial strategy. It would be better to facilitate investment in the west in order that people might be encouraged to live there. We should not centralise everything in Dublin or use huge amounts of energy to pump water from the River Shannon to Dublin. The latter approach is wrong and I would object to it.

My final point relates to water charges. Like the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I am of the view that the Opposition should outline how it intends to obtain money to pay for the water infrastructure that is required. We must consider how we can fund, in a proper manner, the water services investment programme in the coming years. That programme is crucial for the future of the nation.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. The Green Party is obviously flexing its muscles today. Earlier the House debated the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill and now we have been informed that during the past seven years Fianna Fáil spent €140 million on water services. Senator Ó Brolcháin also informed us that the Green Party, through the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has managed to spend €300 million on water service initiatives in a few months. What the Green Party has done today is engage in an exercise of rubbing Fianna Fáil's nose in it. However, I do not know whether this will go down well with the senior party in government.

The difficulties experienced as a result of flooding in November, severe weather in December and January and water shortages, which are ongoing, have been compounded by the Government which has lost all capacity to plan and act quickly in an emergency. The Government never prepared a national plan to deal with severe weather. That is why its initial response to the recent severe weather took such a long time to organise.

A couple of weeks ago, the Office of Emergency Planning's website stated that: "A national framework for response to severe weather emergencies is being developed to ensure that all existing local severe weather plans are appropriately coordinated and linked." It is obvious, therefore, that a national plan was not in place. A national crisis requires a national response. It is evident from what was stated on the Office of Emergency Planning's website that there was no national response to the recent severe weather.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, attempted to cobble together a response some three weeks into the big freeze when people were still suffering as a result of his initial failure to initiate such a response. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, stated during the crisis that he was not needed. There are some who might suggest that he is still not needed. Earlier, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicated that Ireland's response to the severe weather was better than that which obtained in other countries and that we were able to clear airport runways much faster. Does the Minister live on the same planet as everyone else? The countries to which he refers were obliged to deal with between six to 14 inches of snow. Only a couple of inches of snow fell in Ireland but the Minister is boasting about his response in the context of clearing roads, etc.

Like previous speakers, I express my admiration for the valiant efforts of local authority staff who dealt with the crisis caused by the severe weather during the holiday period. They did so despite a lack of leadership at national level. There is no doubt that these people behaved heroically despite the cut in Government funding and the laying off of a large number of temporary staff.

What should a national plan contain? It should clearly identify specific named routes to be cleared and gritted as a first priority. Access to airports should be cleared and ports should remain accessible. Major hospitals should remain accessible. There should be ambulance and medical evacuation contingencies. It should identify specific public transport routes to be serviced as a priority if bus and rail services fail. We should use military transport to move people if public transport fails and assign military units for specific routes. It should identify regions where the population is isolated and vulnerable and assign military helicopters and trucks accordingly. This is the type of national plan we need.

The response was pathetic. It is appropriate at this time to examine how in 2010 Ireland could suffer such massive systems failures that resulted in prolonged water shortages when the country is still recovering from record levels of flooding. The answer is simple. It is down to lack of leadership and reform by the Government. As has been stated, Fianna Fáil stood over a system that saw 43% of all drinking water lost through leaks before the recent cold weather caused the problems affecting supplies today. We need to shake up the entire system radically to ensure a dependable, clear and cost effective water supply is available for everybody.

While the past six months were some of the wettest in the past 50 years, it surprised many how quickly water shortages can develop following damage in a few key areas. This is as a result of having a fragmented, inefficient and outdated water system. There is a need for interaction and a co-ordinated approach between the local authorities. Senator Coffey has outlined our policy in this regard.

Following the recent flooding and severe weather conditions our regional and local roads are in an appalling state. We can all see them for ourselves. Four Oireachtas Members met in Waterford last week. The county manager reported that it would cost at least €5 million to repair and restore the roads because the damage is so extensive. The same is replicated throughout the country. The local authority has asked that capital funds be used to repair these roads, an option which should be examined by Government. Some 94% of our roads are regional and local. They carry approximately 60% of the traffic and 43% of all goods. It is shocking to think of the dangerous conditions drivers are now expected to endure because of the Government's failure to allocate the necessary funding. Road safety is essential to all road improvement and maintenance work and is supposed to be a key plank in the Government's road investment programme. Despite this we see how the Government has cut the funding for roads which will leave our roads in a disgraceful state. This is the legacy of the Government's lack of investment that saw an allocation for non-national roads of €607 million in February 2009. By the end of the year only €411 million was spent, a cut of 32%. This is the legacy of the Government.

This motion gives an opportunity to express our sincere thanks to the local authorities for how they reacted in a very severe situation. This was never a crisis for some people until Dublin got a scattering of snow one evening and roads became slippery. Down in the country we had to live with it for two to three weeks before Dublin was hit. At that stage people did not realise how much work the local authorities in rural areas had put in to ensure our roads were passable and our water systems were kept flowing to the highest possible standards at the time.

We must also accept that it has been 25 or 26 years since we had the same depth of snow and almost 40 years since we had frost as severe as we had this year. It exposed a considerable amount of shoddy work that had been done, not just by private individuals. People discovered that the water pipes leading to their houses, instead of being 18 inches to 2 ft. underground, were only nine inches and in some cases were stuck under the footpaths outside houses. They froze overnight. These people did not realise corners had been cut in many cases — corners were also cut in a supervisory role by local authorities in many cases — and they ended up with a disaster as a result. Many of the water problems were caused by a failure to adhere to best practice in laying water mains and installing connections to houses. We saw the result and we shall see it again. People are now aware of the sorts of problems they can face in severe weather.

People talk about the roads. The second and third class roads became a total mess and sheets of ice towards the end of the severe weather. However, it was not in all cases the fault of the local authority, the Government or anyone else. In many cases surface water was coming out onto some of these roads which became skating rinks. We all drive every day on roads where water is being allowed to flow onto roads resulting in a skating rink if there is a touch of frost at all. We need to consider what we do for the future. It may be time to consider allowing the local communities access to grit, salt or whatever may be necessary to deal with the problem. In many local communities it was the efforts of farmers and others, who took out their tractors and transport boxes and got grit and anything available to give grip, that allowed people access to and from their homes.

The motion was only tabled for party political reasons. If I were on the other side of the House I would do the same. The substance of the motion is laughable. Some of the suggestions it makes do not stand up to scrutiny. It calls on the Government to "establish a single water semi state utility company to take over responsibility for water investment and management on a national basis". There are group schemes throughout the country that are doing a good job. Who will pay for this new body? John and Mary citizen will have to carry the cost of the extra personnel it is proposed to employ. My colleagues on the Opposition benches know that John and Mary citizen are already well and truly overtaxed——

By the Senator's Government.

——and do not want any more taxes or charges imposed upon them. Senator Buttimer's area got flooded and he should remember that we came to his rescue then.

We saw the response from the Minister this week.

Senator Ellis without interruption, please.

Fine Gael proposes to take this responsibility into a national organisation. The local authorities have done a tremendous job of looking after water provision throughout the country. In doing so are we going to create another quango? I believe we have enough of them at the moment, as I am sure everyone in the country would agree. Let the local authorities continue to be responsible for local services. If we allow them to be responsible for local services, they will learn to identify the problems and deal with them. I would love to know how members of the Opposition can say every week there should be money for this and that without indicating where it is going to come from, unless they are going to win the lottery. Even that would not keep matters going for too long.

The motion calls for an examination of all engineering resources, with "the State to ensure a rapid remedy to widespread burst water mains". To repair burst water mains is very simple, once they are identified. To be fair to local authorities, they repair them immediately. We know problems have arisen where reservoirs levels have been allowed to go down. However, bear in mind that a considerable number of citizens were responsible for this because they left the taps running. It is irresponsible for anyone to suggest that taps should be left running. We all know the cost of producing drinkable water, and this is something that will have to be looked at. The amount of water being lost from the system, not just through leaks but being used to wash cars, footpaths and various other purposes for which it was never designed to be used, will have to be examined. We will have to decide how we can maintain an adequate water system to meet people's needs.

We must also remember the amount of development that has taken place, as regards new housing and so on, and the repercussions this has had on the water supply system. This is something that has to be looked at by everybody. I note, as well, that the Fine Gael motion calls for "additional funding for the restoration of severely damaged local and regional roads for reasons of road safety and to minimise costly reconstruction". Much of this costly reconstruction is caused by poor initial workmanship on these roads. As far as my local authority is concerned, we have had far fewer problems than other areas because it made sure that whatever roadworks it carried out over the past ten or 15 years were done to a high standard, and we are getting the benefit of this.

However, the fact the Minister is allowing councils to decide where they are to spend their roads money will be of great interest to the Fine Gael Senators' colleagues on all the local authorities they control throughout the country. It is time they decided how they are going to spend the money. They need not say it is Fianna Fáil's responsibility since it is their duty now to spend the resources.

I am glad of the opportunity to have this discussion in order to address how we supply water to our towns, cities and households. If the difficult weather conditions of the last few weeks taught us anything, it was that the national water supply system is creaking at the seams. When faced with its first real challenge in many years, it was simply unable to cope.

The report by Forfás a couple of years ago, which has been cited by a number of Senators, told a very difficult story. It found that 43% of the valuable water we produce is simply unaccounted for. It disappears through a substandard outdated piping system and it is often tapped into illegally. There are a number of ways in which this valuable commodity simply disappears off the face of the earth. That is unacceptable. In addition, the figure of 43% is an average, so the situation is a great deal worse in some local authorities while somewhat better in others. It must teach us, however, that to allow a fragmented approach to water provision is simply not the way forward.

In the last ten to 15 years we have seen how successful the NRA has been in rolling out a national roads network around the country. Just recently the M6, a fine piece of infrastructure which I travel on every week from Dublin to Galway, was finally completed. I believe it would not have been completed for many decades without that overarching element, involving a pretty visionary NRA co-ordinating the construction of the infrastructure across a plethora of local authorities. Rather than suggesting, as Senator Glynn did earlier, that the NRA had somehow usurped the expertise of the local authorities, it has in fact done quite the opposite. I know a number of civil engineers previously employed by Galway County Council who were seconded to the NRA for the period of the construction traversing County Galway. Their expertise was harnessed, and their experience in being able to operate in their own environment was found by the NRA to be very valuable. Rather than usurping or taking from the role of the local authorities, the NRA has worked hand in glove with them across the country in continuing to provide a very substantial and modern road network.

I ask why that approach cannot be applied to water, because it makes eminent sense to have some type of inter-connectivity across the 34 local authorities. Imagine for a moment that we did not have the ESB, for example, a semi-State body that supplies electricity to all of our homes and businesses. Imagine if there was an electricity generating station in each local authority and that the network in each case simply terminated at the county boundary. Someone living a mile over the county boundary would get electricity from a generating station within his or her county. That is what pertains as regards water provision. There is little or no interconnectivity between counties and that is what needs to happen. It will only happen when there is an overarching single entity with a national strategy in charge of the process.

I am very sad that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has left the Chamber half way into the discussion, but he did not seem to believe this was a good idea. In fact he thought Fine Gael was proposing to establish yet another quango that somehow would not be able to do the job of supplying water. He was supported in that position by Senator Ó Brolcháin, then Senator Camillus Glynn rowed in to the effect that he would not support the setting up of a national water authority, since he had sufficient trust in the local authorities to do the job they were doing. I wonder whether anybody in Government anymore has the time or interest to examine what exactly its policy is in this area because Fine Gael's policy of setting up a national visionary water authority is also the policy of Government.

That policy came about through the provision of an excellent document last November by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. They asked a high-level investigative group to examine how the Government might harness the potential of the green enterprise sector and said it was central to the development of the smart economy and designated it as one of Ireland's target sectors for investment and job creation. I fully support that aspiration. The report's introduction concluded by saying: "Government will ensure this report is acted upon swiftly and decisively in order that Ireland can extend its international reputation as an exciting and dynamic location for innovation and job creation, to embrace the green enterprise sector".

Somewhat further on in the document one of the excellent ideas from the working group, supported by the two Ministers, is the following:

. . . the setting up of a single national water authority, with overall responsibility for system, planning, delivery and maintenance. This will support the development of deeper public and private sector capabilities in the water sector and the development of projects of greater scale.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was charged with setting up this single water authority.

The Minister does not know his own policy.

The Minister is obviously not listening to the people who are advising him. His colleagues in Government seem to believe that report after report can be commissioned without any real activity taking place on foot of their recommendations. It makes sense to set up a national water authority. I ask Senator Ó Brolcháin to consult with his Minister and come back to the Chamber to explain how a policy contained in the Government's green economy document has somehow become a non-policy.

This is an interesting motion which warrants further debate and action. There is no doubt that certain elements of the motion and of the amendment should be actively pursued, progressed and reported on either to the House or a committee of the House.

Given the time restraints, I cannot deal in detail with every aspect of the motion so I will focus my contribution on the provision of water to the consumer, the current supply chain, further provision and likely demand, supply sources and the local authorities' strategic plans. I have raised these issues in the past and have referred to water as "the new oil". The local authorities must comply with regulations and standards in supplying water to consumers and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, monitors and enforces such regulations and standards. I would appreciate if the Minister or his officials would send me a briefing document on who is responsible for what with regard to the water supply chain; what standards, regulation and or legislation apply at each level; and if there are any gaps.

The EPA protects our water through its licensing, enforcement and monitoring activities. The good status objective, as set out in the water framework directive, WFD, sets a clear target which this nation must achieve in water status by 2015. I was somewhat bemused by Senator Hayes and others who were indicating that it was one part of the Government that did a huge amount of work in recent weeks or months——

It was Senator Ó Brolcháin who said it.

——but, in fairness to all involved, much work has been undertaken over the last number of years to get us to our current position.

The current information available on the state of water quality in our rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, bathing waters, ground water, drinking water, urban waste water treatment and our river basin management appears to be good. The new holistic approach to managing our water and our aim to achieve good water status in all our waters by 2015 and, of course, to ensure that our status does not deteriorate in any way are admirable. As a result, Ireland has been divided into a number of river basin districts, with a draft management plan prepared and a road map to show how our natural waters will be protected and restored. This begs a huge amount of questions relating to the protection of the river basin districts and the impact that certain development, be it a simple development or a massive infrastructural project, has on the protection of our water plains, as they are sometimes called, or our river basin districts, as they are referred to in some documents I have read. Whether they are called water plains or river basin districts, who is responsible for ensuring there is no pollution of or interference with these waters? I figure there is nobody in the local authority sector or in the EPA and I am not sure what role the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government plays in this regard. This is solely with regard to development.

That said, when one looks at what is taking place with regard to the water framework directive and what is happening in local authorities, one must admit that a great deal of very good work is being done. However, there are inconsistencies. If we are so committed on this issue, why have we not commenced the relevant sections — I believe they are sections 36, 37 and 38 — of the Water Services Act? These sections require local authorities to set out their strategic plans for water provision based on assessment of need. Those sections were due to be commenced some months ago but have not yet been commenced by the Minister, Deputy Gormley. The Minister referred to the water services investment programme which is to be announced shortly. I look forward to the action he will take in this regard. I understand from conversations with members of my local authority that there is interaction between the Department and the local authority with regard to the assessment of need and so forth.

I wish to focus on the question of public health. In the Dublin City Council catchment the council supplies approximately 540 million litres of drinking water to approximately 1.4 million citizens through a network of service reservoirs and pipe infrastructure. The service network is in urgent need of upgrading to address quality and leakage and to ensure the highest standard of water for consumption.

How much time do I have left?

I hope my friend and colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, who has been in and out of the House for the past two hours, will get the five minutes indicated for him.

Given the density of population and the volume of drinking water consumed, I ask the Minister or his officials to forward to me a detailed briefing on the situation that prevails in the Dublin City Council catchment with regard to the level of investment that has been identified, the work undertaken on the strategic plan and the exploratory work carried out on alternative water supplies. Senator Hayes referred to the Shannon as if it was a protected area. It is interesting to read about the river basin districts but I understand a pilot project is being undertaken with regard to the supply of water from the Shannon district to Dublin. I hope we can get some information on that from the Minister. I also wish to know about the cost of water provision in the Dublin City Council catchment and its efficiency.

I firmly believe in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I consume water in two different regions of our country, the east and the south west. The level of supply and quality of drinking water can vary and this should not be the case. Everybody has heard about or witnessed the variance that can occur throughout the country and is conscientiously aware of the costs and risks of illness due to poor or dilapidated infrastructure or poor quality drinking water. This might account for the inroads that bottled water has made into the marketplace over recent years. I was surprised to learn that annual sales of bottled water in Ireland have a total market value of approximately €100 million. That is huge expenditure. Somehow bottled water has the mystique of being purer and better quality water. Personally, I opt for chateau de tap. It is our responsibility to ensure we deliver water that is clean and safe to drink.

I wish to share time with Senator Jerry Buttimer

That is agreed.

On these benches we tend to have problems with motions which begin by condemning the Government, and we equally have problems with amendments that begin by commending the Government. We must travel a steady line between the two positions.

With regard to the motion before us, I do not feel strongly about condemning the Government but every other element of the motion is positive and must be examined. Neither do I believe there is anything commendable about the Government's response. We could easily have had a plan in place to deal with all that happened in the last couple of months but it would have meant diverting budgets. For anybody in a local authority who had the options of either fixing a road this year or putting material aside to deal with something that might happen once every 40 years, the choice would have been very easy. I do not blame local authority members for getting it wrong on this occasion. I do not believe I would have done better.

There is an important issue to be raised. Senator Cannon is absolutely correct in implying there is no joined-up government if on the one hand the high-level group on green enterprise produces a report, signed by both the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, who say the Government will act upon it swiftly and decisively, while on the other hand the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government states in the House he is bemused by the proposal to establish a national water authority. The House deserves an answer on this. In welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the House, I do not expect him to have an answer; he is sitting here to take the flak. Somebody must explain how different views can be held by three Ministers, two of whom are from the same party.

We must have learned that the legislation referred to by Senator Callely, which gives 32 different local authorities responsibility, is just not working. There needs to be a national authority with a national policy that can be implemented locally by local authorities. There is no other way to deal with the matter.

Consider the point made by Senators on water harvesting. I spoke today with representatives of Sustainable Energy Ireland and asked why there is no requirement in the building regulations stipulating that every house built in Ireland should have some form of renewable energy resource. I was told this can be achieved under current legislation and that it is only a matter of ensuring it is done. Most people are getting away by installing devices such as wood pellet boilers. This is one of the wettest countries in Europe and we all have roofs on our houses. Twenty-six inches of water fall every year on my house in Dublin. It is expensive to retrofit water-harvesting devices. Rainwater could certainly be used for all toilets in houses. There would be a huge saving.

It has reached the stage where engineers around the country do not quite know where are the water mains. I spoke to one who told me there was a serious problem that could only be rectified by asking a very elderly retired engineer in an old people's home the direction of one of the main pipelines in the county. The local authority did not know.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stated the current severe weather episodes have identified a number of weaknesses in our water service infrastructure. That is not true because we have known about these weaknesses. The Dublin and Cork local authorities have been referring to the wastage of water for years. Nothing new has been identified. We need an honest debate in the Houses on water charges. The charge would not be for water but for the delivery, provision or piping of water.

I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing time with me.

The Government's response to the flooding in Cork has been poor, particularly its response to the draft Lee Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management Study. I would like answers to specific questions. Why is the Government refusing to invest €100 million in the provision of flood relief in Cork, as recommended in the report? It is imperative that the Government sanction the investment in flood relief for Cork city and that the work be carried out immediately. The €100 million required to build a defence system to reduce the risk of tidal and river flooding in Cork is a very small sum. It is very small change to the people of the Middle Parish, Mardyke and Western Road who were flooded last November. What will we do in ten months, ten years or 20 years if the flooding recurs? I welcome the fact the ESB, using its two dams, will have an enhanced role in flood risk management but the Government must invest in the defences, thus saving money in the future.

Eighty thousand people in Cork, half the city, had no drinking water for seven to ten days during the flooding. Is this acceptable in 21st-century Ireland? No matter what we say tonight, we must acknowledge investment in flood relief in the city of Cork will pay dividends in years to come. The people and the city are worth the money. One should bear in mind the cumulative cost of addressing the problems in the university, residences and businesses in Cork as a result of our failure to invest. We must invest in the future. The tenet of the motion is about investing in the future. If we are shortsighted, it is the people of Cork who will suffer.

The sum of €100 million, required to protect the city of Cork and its people at all costs, is very small. It is good value and makes economic sense. The investment requires a political decision by the Government. If it is serious about the people of Cork and the city, it will make the investment. If Dublin were flooded, there would be an avalanche of Ministers on the plinth of Leinster House shouting and roaring about the money to be invested in the city. Since it is Cork that was affected rather than Dublin, there is reluctance to invest. I appeal to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Finneran, and the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Mansergh, to invest €100 million to the benefit of the city and people of Cork.

I was glad to have the opportunity to propose this motion. While the Opposition will not have the numbers to pass it, one must realise the debate has highlighted many of the inadequacies of the Government and its response to the crisis we recently witnessed. There is a lack of joined-up thinking at the highest level of the Government, as highlighted clearly by Senator Cannon's point. The new policy of developing the green economy, which is endorsed by the Government, states clearly a single national water authority should be introduced with overall responsibility for system planning, delivery and maintenance. The press release for the policy, signed by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, and the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, states the Government will ensure the report is acted upon swiftly. In spite of this, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government ridiculed the Fine Gael policy, which is in many ways similar to that in the report. It refers to having a national water management authority. The divergence of views highlights clearly the lack of clarity, policy and joined-up thinking in the Government's response to the management of our national and natural resources.

This evening the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government spoke about waste policy. There has been a national policy in place for over ten years, yet the present Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is opposing it. This is causing much confusion and there are mixed messages being circulated, thus making us wonder why local authorities and various agencies are struggling to cope and respond when a crisis occurs. We must have leadership from the top. Unfortunately, it was sadly lacking during the recent adverse weather. Some of the Ministers were missing also. This is a very sad indictment of the Government and indicates a total lack of leadership.

This motion is to highlight the aforementioned inadequacies and to try to find ways to achieve a co-ordinated response that would really assist those who are struggling as a consequence of inadequate roads and water supplies, which are essential to the day-to-day running of our country, including business. I commend the motion to the House.

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 30; Níl, 21.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins.
Amendment declared carried.
Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 30; Níl, 21.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins.
Question declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.