The last five weeks of 2010 saw unprecedented severe weather across the country. Spells of exceptionally cold weather brought home the real difficulties we must face during such weathers, and we experienced some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded in Ireland, together with heavy snowfalls in places. Temperatures remained below zero for nine consecutive days in some inland areas. Many records for low temperatures were broken on the nights of 24 December and 25 December. There was a dramatic change over the Christmas period and a rapid change to milder weather during St. Stephen's Day and the following day, Monday, 27 December. An overall change of on average 20 degrees Celsius over a 24 to 36 hour period was experienced. This led to a very rapid thaw in most areas of the country, with most of the snow melted in the southern half of the country by Tuesday and the thaw taking effective hold over the rest of the country by Wednesday, 29 December.
The very rapid thaw caused movement in the ground which led to pipes bursting. This occurred not only in public mains but also at the point of consumer connections to mains and on consumer service pipes. In addition to finding and fixing leaks on the public networks, many authorities had to assist in fixing consumer side leakage or disconnect properties in order to protect the overall network and restore supply to the wider community as well as making alternative supplies by standpipes or tankers where necessary.
Significant evidence of leakage on private property was found in the greater Dublin area, necessitating a number of disconnections of private properties. The number of these disconnections in the greater Dublin area exceeded the number of required repairs to connections between public mains and consumer supplies. Outside of the greater Dublin area, the indications from local authorities are that the leaks were predominantly found at connection points to the network, with one third of the problems on the consumer side. Nationwide, over 2,500 unattended properties had to be disconnected due to leakage on the consumer side.
Almost 3,400 local authority staff and their contractors were involved over the period since 26 December in finding and fixing these leaks. Some 250,000 person hours of work were involved over the period. Many of those people had also been involved in the run-up to Christmas in responding to the severe weather. Workers who had salted and gritted roads during some of the most severe weather on record in this country then drove tankers to ensure that people had adequate access to drinking water. Staff in the water services area in local authorities were willingly assisted by roads, housing and other support staff in a combined effort which is the hallmark of public service. I commend them for their commitment and wholeheartedly thank these workers on behalf of the Government for their efforts.
As a result of this work, progressive improvements were made on a daily basis throughout the period so that restrictions could be reduced and eliminated in many places. This work continues and some restrictions continue to apply to ensure reservoirs are replenished to normal levels. It is important to highlight that this response was part of the wider response to the severe weather, which has involved many statutory, voluntary and private bodies. The close co-operation at local level of these groups and their participation in the national severe weather co-ordination group has ensured a focused response to the extreme conditions.
This did not happen without appropriate planning. Lessons have been learned from weather events in 2009 and earlier in 2010. With water services, local authorities put in place contingency arrangements before Christmas in the light of the anticipated thaw. This included demand management measures to seek to reduce demand and replenish reservoirs during the period of freezing weather, mainly through pressure reductions and night-time restrictions. In addition, authorities ensured that staff would be available throughout the Christmas and new year periods to manage production, find and fix leaks, provide alternative supplies through tankers and standpipes and provide information through websites and other media outlets. It was important to communicate with large numbers of people through various media.
Once the thaw took hold and leaks began to appear, local authorities immediately mobilised response crews to deal with the affected areas. The overall response at national level to the severe weather and to the disruptions to water supply is already being reviewed by my Department and the other Departments and agencies involved; we will learn from the experience and further develop our response mechanisms.
The second point on which I am in agreement with Fine Gael is the need for substantial investment in water services. However, the party is very much a late convert to this position and to the importance of enhancing our water infrastructure. Since entering Government, I have made water infrastructure a priority and as a result ensured record investment in our infrastructure. Since taking office, the investment has averaged in the region of €500 million a year, and a high level of investment has been maintained in 2011 despite the downturn in our economy. We have had a legacy of historical underinvestment, a legacy that Fine Gael showed little interest in addressing when it had the opportunity in Government. The party, in its motion, is also conveniently ignoring the strategies now in place to radically transform the sector in the coming years.
Ireland has a very diverse water supply system, with over 950 public supplies producing some 1,600 million litres of water daily through a network of 25,000 km of pipes. The extent of burst water mains places a particular focus on the vulnerability of the Irish water distribution system, in particular given its age, the high levels of leakage in the system and the lack of investment historically in mains rehabilitation. Water is a precious resource, with costs associated with both treatment and distribution.
While one might accept that larger networks have greater inherent risks in terms of leakage, the levels of unaccounted for water in the Irish network are completely unacceptable. Improvements have been made in the Dublin area, with unaccounted for water reducing from some 42% to closer to 30%, but many other areas have rates of more than 50%. From both an economic and environmental perspective, there must be a strong focus on addressing leakage in our water systems given the increased demands for water, greater pressures on raw water and more stringent drinking water standards. This is being addressed.
The focus of investment over recent years has been on investing to ensure compliance with the European directives on drinking water standards and urban waste water discharges and improving water supply to keep pace with population and economic needs. More than €5 billion in Exchequer resources was introduced between 2000 and 2010 in water services infrastructure. This investment has been complemented by local authorities' own resources to bring total expenditure to more than €6 billion over the period in question. Under the water services investment programme, 476 major public water and waste water contracts and schemes were completed in the period 2000 to 2009.
At the beginning of the decade of the programme, there were two paramount challenges for the water services sector. First, there were drinking water quality issues in a number of supplies, predominantly in the group water sector where there were unacceptability high incidences of e.coli detection. As a result, the European Court of Justice found Ireland in breach of its obligations under the waste water treatment directive on secondary waste water treatment at the beginning of 2000. As a result of the Exchequer investment of €2.8 billion in waste water infrastructure over the ten years since 2000, compliance with the EU waste water treatment directive on secondary treatment stood at 92% by the end of 2009. This investment has also led to an increase in secondary waste water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 3.7 million in the same period.
This investment has been accompanied by a range of measures to support a radical transformation of water services in recent years. This has included the passage of the Water Services Act 2007 which provides a modern and comprehensive legislative framework for the delivery of water services, consolidating more than a century of legislation relating to water and waste water services.
In addition to the substantial Exchequer investment in drinking water infrastructure, the Government also put in place a comprehensive regulatory framework for the monitoring of drinking water supplies. The European Communities (Drinking Water) (No. 2) Regulations 2007 prescribe quality standards to be applied as well as supervision and enforcement procedures for drinking water. The regulations provided for enhanced supervision and enforcement of drinking water provision and assigned the Environmental Protection Agency responsibility for the supervision of public water supplies and the local authorities responsibility for the supervision of all other water supplies within their functional area.
We have also enhanced the regulatory framework for waste water services. The Waste Water Discharge (Authorisation) Regulations 2007 provide for the authorisation by the Environmental Protection Agency of discharges from local authority waste water treatment works and collection systems that are released to all types of receiving waters. The EPA, in considering applications for authorisations, can stipulate conditions to ensure compliance with standards for various substances and conformity with obligations under a number of EU environmental directives. It can periodically review discharge authorisations granted and failure by local authorities to comply with conditions attaching to an authorisation will be an offence. The agency, local authorities and my Department are working together to continually improve the quality of the services being provided to consumers. This collaborative approach has contributed greatly to improvements in the quality of our water resources.
The other marked change in recent years has been the move to a river basin catchment approach to water resource management. The adoption of river basin management plans last year marked an important step in the implementation of the EU water framework directive and provides the strategic direction for much of our future actions and investment in the sector. Continued investment in the sector is required to ensure the progress made is consolidated and plans for future improvements implemented. A greater proportion of investment in the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012 will be dedicated to improving water supply infrastructure with water conservation being accorded top priority.
The publication of the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012 followed on from a root and branch review of water services capital investment. This included a review of all projects included in the previous programme which had not substantially advanced to ensure the contracts and schemes to proceed were fully aligned with key programme economic and environmental priorities.
The 2010-12 programme sets out an expanded investment in critical mains rehabilitation with contracts with a value of some €320 million set to commence over the period of the programme. This is more than double the investment of €130 million in water conservation measures in the period 2003 to 2009.
Expenditure to date on water conservation outside Dublin has largely been in technology-based water management systems. These systems proved invaluable during the recent difficulties both in managing production and providing data to assist in leak detection. The data from these systems provide the platform for the development of mains rehabilitation strategies to guide critical mains rehabilitation whereby water distribution pipelines are relined or replaced and ensure that the greatest water savings result from such investment. While the Dublin authorities' programme of rehabilitation is the most advanced, other authorities were finalising their programmes of works during 2010 to allow for contract commencements this year.
The investment of €435 million in water services in 2011 under this programme will, in addition to prioritising water conservation, allow for the progression of priority contracts for expansion of supply or the improvement of security of supply in a number of hubs and gateways.
It is anticipated that sustained investment in line with that envisaged in the water services investment programme could reduce the rate of unaccounted for water by 10% nationwide by 2016. In addition, I have placed particular emphasis on the training of water services personnel by making available a dedicated funding stream in 2010. Through this fund, some 500 days of training on leakage detection were provided in 2010.
Investment and training can only do so much. How we use water also needs to be addressed and water charges based on usage have a major part to play in this regard. My Department is finalising proposals to give effect to the Government decision to introduce water charges in a way that is fair, significantly reduces waste and is easily applied. The national recovery plan proposes that the introduction of water charges for domestic customers would be preceded by the commencement of a national metering programme, which will be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund, to install meters in households connected to the public water supply. While the metering programme is likely to take a number of years to complete, the objective is that it will be substantially advanced over the next three years. My Department is analysing the various options to ensure the delivery of the metering programme in the most cost-effective manner.
The installation of water meters in households connected to public supplies will encourage householders to conserve water and result in savings in the significant operational costs faced by local authorities in providing water and waste water services. It will also complement the significant increases in investment on water conservation measures in the water services investment programme.
The Government recognises that a crucial element of implementing this initiative will be the appointment of a water regulator. It is intended that the water regulator would be responsible for the economic regulation of water services to both the non-domestic sector and the domestic sector. Independent regulation will ensure greater transparency and fairness in water pricing for both sectors and provide that charges can be clearly linked to the delivery of a reliable and good quality service. In addition to overseeing the rates of water charges, the water regulator will also be responsible for establishing standards for service delivery and performance.
Consideration is being given to assigning the responsibility for regulation of the water sector to an existing regulatory body, although a final decision has not yet been taken on this matter.
Notwithstanding the efforts of the local authorities in quickly dealing with the disruptions to water supply, and the difficulties experienced by the national water authority in Northern Ireland, the Fine Gael motion still envisages the consolidation of water maintenance functions under one single national authority as originally proposed in the NewERA document published last year. This ignores the fact that our capacity to quickly respond and deal with the water supply disruptions over the past few weeks has been due in large part to local authorities being able to mobilise resources locally to deal with local problems.
Fine Gael said earlier that it does not want to privatise but it is fair to say that the party says a number of things. Looking at the NewERA document in greater detail, there is reference to the water company investing "an additional €250 million on fixing or replacing leaking water pipes". The Government has already committed €320 million to do the same thing.