This post originally was published on the Geographical Society of Ireland’s website as part of a series on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Inadequate drinking water – an issue of both water quality and water quantity – presents a public health imperative requiring comprehensive action. Recognising that many people lack access to clean drinking water, the 6th UNSDG, clean water and sanitation, has several aims, including to enhance the work of local communities in water and sanitation management. Our project seeks to understand the contexts and relationships that shape how community-managed water suppliers deliver clean drinking water to rural parts of Ireland.
Water scarcity and water quality are issues that cut across different contexts. While our project is focused in Ireland, the challenges of addressing clean water and sanitation are vast and varied. Attention to clean water and sanitation has often centred on challenges in the global south, where basic water infrastructure may be absent and many face life-threatening disease from their waters’ quality. Yet, increasingly contamination events and water shortages in the global north have revealed the fissures, oversights and contradictions of drinking water systems, highlighting them as a point of research and intervention. Upgrading water infrastructures is a key element of this work.
However, challenges to providing clean drinking water in Ireland, as in other places, are not just a question of water availability and its adequate treatment but also the legacies of infrastructural (dis)investment, economic policies, and, more fundamentally, the contradictions that exist between growth-led development and sustainable water systems. Water has become a repository of many of our tiniest wastes: traces of our body wash, fake tans, and pharmaceuticals mix with residues from agricultural pesticides and fertilizers. As these artefacts accumulate and mutate over decades, they pose new and expanding challenges to providing clean drinking water. Thus, addressing the 6th UNSDG requires we look beyond just our physical water infrastructures to the social, political, economic and ecological processes that pollute the hydro-social cycle. The WISDOM Project: Learning from Group Water Schemes (GWSs), led by Dr. Patrick Bresnihan of Trinity’s Department of Geography, unravels such connections by focusing on source water protection undertaken by GWSs.
GWSs developed through local cooperatives and voluntary labour in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the lack of piped water supplies in rural areas in Ireland. Following Ireland’s inclusion in the EEC in 1972, piped water enabled the expansion of animal-based agriculture as the dairy and beef industries industrialised; more water facilitated larger and more productive herds. In the 1990s, however, many GWSs were failing water quality standards. With pressure from the EU, the Irish government provided support to GWSs to upgrade and rationalise their operations to improve water quality by developing new water treatment facilities. Through these projects, however, it became clear that water treatment as not the only issue; source water quality impacts the cost of water treatment. Under the direction of its national representative body, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, in the last 15 years, many GWSs have been involved in research to understand and remediate the pollution in their water sources.
As our project begins to take shape (we’re in the early stages of research) already the complexities of these source water issues – and why geographers are well-positioned to examine them – has become clear. We’ve learned that source water protection is a question of geology, where different karst landscapes present different challenges for tracing groundwater sources and provide environments where microbiological organisms can survive. We’ve learned that source water protection is a question of boundaries; often polluters within a catchment for a GWSs are not themselves supplied by the GWS and lack incentives to undertake voluntary measures to reduce pollution. We’ve learned that source water protection is a question of land use policy and practice; intensive and animal-based agriculture is found to be unequivocally the source of certain kinds of pollution, particularly when animals use waterways as direct sources of drinking water and contaminate water with their faeces. Some of the GWS landscapes we have visited look peaceful and still, a calmness that masks policies, ecologies, and geologies that shape the quality of source waters, and that have facilitated agricultural pollution over decades.
The WISDOM project tries to understand these complex relationships between infrastructures, policies, and ecologies that are rooted in long legacies and practices. Although the project focuses on source water protection, this work takes us to unexpected places outside GWSs’ boundaries. In September, we travelled to the National Ploughing Competition to learn about agriculture’s cultural role in rural Ireland. Billed as a celebration of rural life, the competition drew more than a quarter million spectators over three days and hosted 1700 vendors. More than a cultural experience, what we found was that our initial understandings of agricultural sources of source water pollution were too neat and simple.
In speaking with vendors, we developed new questions about the complexities of protecting water sources water from animals. Regulations that restrict animals from waterways and require farmers to find alternative water sources, namely by pumping water into troughs, requiring a water infrastructure for animals. Companies and products seek to facilitate regulatory compliance and expanding herd sizes incentivised by agricultural policy. Vendors were dedicated to pipes, to concrete troughs, to water pumps, and to electricity to pump the water.
As agricultural policies incentivise increased herd sizes, they incentivise new, and bigger pipes, to draw more water to animals faster. These technologies have to be planned, installed, maintained, and upgraded and all at a cost. Protecting source water is not so simple as installing a fence. As we work to understand how GWSs seek to implement source protection strategies with farmers, many of whom are on GWSs themselves, these complexities of policy and practice have to be explored.