On a wet and windy but mercifully snow-free day last Thursday, a team of Dublin City Council workers was out repairing damaged water mains on Petrie Road, near the National Stadium off the South Circular Road.
While the location may have been new, the morning's work would have had a familiar feel to those gathered there.
Over recent weeks, seven city council teams have worked around the clock, frequently battling severe snow and ice, to fix scores of leaking pipes throughout the Dublin area.
In most cases, the pipes have been broken as a direct result of the recent arctic weather, after the previously hard, frozen earth thawed and shifted position, damaging the aged water mains.
On average, Dublin City Council is currently repairing seven such water mains every day. This compares to a rate of just two a day during normal conditions.
But the past few weeks have been far from normal for a city where around 30% of the water supply was already being lost through leaking pipes, even prior to the recent cold snap.
Such has been the fallout from the recent snow and ice that, even though much of the ice of a few weeks ago has long since melted, local authorities around the country were continuing to restrict supplies of water at night throughout last week.
Brian Smyth, executive manager of engineering water services with Dublin City Council, which supplies the bulk of water to all four local Dublin authorities as well as Wicklow and Kildare county councils, said there was in fact no shortage of water in the Dublin region.
"The problem is not with untreated rainwater, we have loads of that. In fact, the untreated reservoirs are full," he said. "The problem is the increased demand for treated water, which is exceeding what we can provide."
There are around a dozen treated water reservoirs in Dublin, including plants located in Stillorgan, Cookstown, Leixlip and Ballycoolin.
When demand increases, these begin to come under pressure as they empty out, Smyth said.
"Currently, the water is going out of the treated water storage tanks faster than we can fill them. During last January's extreme weather, demand went from 570 million litres a day to 634 million pretty much overnight," he said. "That is a huge increase, and it creates massive pressure on our system. It led to a situation in January where for a very long period of time people didn't have access to water at all."
So this time, the council, along with its sister councils in the Dublin water region, has tried to avoid a repeat of that situation by restricting water supplies, mainly at night.
In the Dublin city area, the measures introduced have led to reduced water supplies between 7pm and 7am. As the workers out on Petrie Road in Dublin last week know only too well, one of the most significant factors affecting supplies has been the number of broken pipes caused by the cold weather.
A key factor in this is that the existing water mains network in Dublin is hopelessly antiquated, despite a relatively successful ongoing programme of rehabilitation over the past decade or so.
Of a total of 2,700km of water mains in the city, Smyth estimated that 1,300km were more than 50 years old, meaning the pipes were primarily made out of cast iron rather than more flexible plastic piping. Some 650km of pipes are at least 75 years old.
"The leaks we can fix very quickly are the ones that are visible on the road – the ones above ground. The problem ones are below ground. Most leaks disappear into the ground and we have to go looking for them," Smyth explained.
When coupled with householders running taps to stop them freezing over, and increased general usage, the capacity of the current system diminished rapidly in recent weeks.
By way of illustration, the council's own figures show that on Saturday 4 December, there was an available supply of some 558 million litres. But demand exceeded this supply by approximately 15 million litres that day.
Meanwhile, the amount of untreated water in storage declined from 1,010 million litres on Sunday 28 November to 890 million litres on Monday 6 December.
We may well be where we are because of the factors outlined above. But others question why more was not done to ensure the extreme weather did not effectively bring the entire water system in the Leinster region to a shuddering halt.
Among the most vocal critics have been the restaurant and hospitality sectors, which pointed out that the decision to limit supplies at night had a significant impact on their trade at the most crucial time of the year for them.
Many were already reeling from the financial impact of the cancellation of Christmas parties earlier in the month due to people being "snowed in".
The Restaurants Association of Ireland – which just last month warned that one in three restaurants faced closure in the next six months due to the impact of the economic downturn – said its members had suffered a loss of business of up to 70% in some cases due to a combination of water shortages and the weather.
Its chief executive, Adrian Cummins, was scathing of the decision to limit nighttime supplies, and said its argument that the restrictions should apply from 11pm rather than 7pm had fallen on deaf ears.
"We've lost business in one of the major weeks of the year. You would hope that turnover in December alone would account for around 25% of your entire year's turnover. But many businesses couldn't operate to their fullest potential due to the decision to limit nighttime supplies," he said. "The simple fact of the matter is that you can run a restaurant without electricity but you can't run one without water."
As a result, it wants the provision of water services to be taken off the council's hands at a time when some restaurants are having to provide baby wipes to customers wishing to use their toilets.
Cummins has yet to receive a reply to his request for an urgent meeting with environment minister John Gormley, where he intends to ask him to intervene so that businesses can survive over the busy Christmas period.
"Restaurants are struggling at the moment with severe loss of business due to water restrictions and we are asking for a compensation package to be put in place for loss of business," he said. "The current situation is just not good enough."
Barry O'Sullivan, chief executive of the Irish Nightclub Industry Association, said many of his members had also feared the impact of the restrictions on their businesses.
"They had huge concerns, particularly coming into the busy weekend period, that it would close them. For example, if the toilets were not operational or they had no working sinks," he said. "But to the best of my knowledge it hasn't caused the closures which we had feared.
"I suppose it comes from years of experience in the nightclub and large licensed premises trade. They would have had large multiple water storage tanks put in, and that would be enough to get them through. The bigger issue they are having at the moment is the threat of the bad weather itself, and the fact that people are not able to travel when this happens."
Smyth acknowledged the impact of the current restrictions, which look set to continue into this week. "Restaurants and hotels have had difficulties, and it is a busy time for them. We changed the restriction times this weekend from 10pm to 7am, rather than from 7pm to 7am to try to limit the impact for them," he said.
"But the fact remains that we've less water than we need. If we are going to restrict supply, then we have to do it some time. Most people don't use water during the night, so by restricting it at nighttime it lessens the impact.
"If we reduce the hours of the restrictions, then our treated water storage will continue to drop and when our reservoirs empty we'll have no water to give to anybody."
He also noted it was a requirement of Dublin City Council for all premises to have 24 hours' worth of water stored, although this was not expected to be drinking water but rather water to facilitate the flushing of toilets and other activities.
"If you are conservative in your use at home, then with even a 12-hour restriction you should be able to replenish your supplies," Smyth said.
"We understand that, for example, restaurants may need water out of taps for food. During the day, they will have a supply and even in the evening we're not shutting off everybody, we are reducing the water pressure.
"We're trying to pitch it so that we affect the least number of people. But if you are going to reduce supply, it will have to affect somebody. We are going to upset someone no matter what we do."
* The Dublin Water Region
(Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Kildare and Wicklow county councils) supplies about 1.5 million people. This is 35% of the population in the state.
* There are about 2,700km of water mains within Dublin city – 1,300km are older than 50 years and 650km are older than 75 years.
* The Dublin Region Water Mains Rehabilitation Project is replacing and rehabilitating old water mains. This project, and the preceding Dublin Region Water Conservation Project, helped reduce leakage from 42.5% to 28%.
* Supply on Wednesday 1 December was about 550 million litres and demand about 573 million litres.
* One-third of all water used in the home is flushed down the toilet. A reduction of one flush per person per day would save about 12 million litres a day.
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