DUBLIN, Ireland — It’s as ridiculous as selling snow to Eskimos. But Ireland, the rain-soaked island in the Atlantic, is importing water.
Six hundred thousand gallons of emergency drinking water arrived in Belfast Thursday from Scotland to help cope with a drought that has hit both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Ironically, the water shortage comes after deep accumulations of snow melted during two days of torrential rain after Christmas that flooded roads and swelled rivers.
The taps have since run dry in hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses because a once-in-a-century freeze burst countless water pipes beneath city and village streets. According to water expert Gerry Galvin, the extreme range in temperatures produced a heave in the ground that caused pipes to break, allowing water in reservoirs to drain away.
“Numerous small leaks are combining to cause a big problem,” said Galvin, principal Irish government adviser on water services.
The small leaks have brought heartache and misery to householders whose water tanks or pipes have burst, flooding bedrooms and kitchens. No county has escaped. The damage in Cork is described as “colossal” by Paddy O’Friel, head of water services for north Cork, who reckons that there are “leaks out there not yet detected.” In Meath, residents of the village of Kildalkey, who had no water for several days, received emergency supplies by tanker only after threatening to picket a government minister’s house.
Many districts of Dublin are experiencing water shut-offs from 6 p.m. until noon and city officials appealed to residents to cut down the number of times they flushed their toilets. In parts of Dublin restaurants have had to close and some of those that opened are unable to provide tap water or coffee for customers. After intensive lobbying, the Dublin City Council agreed to ease the restrictions on the evening of Dec. 31 to allow for New Year’s Eve celebrations in bars and restaurants.
There were unprecedented scenes in Belfast as thousands of residents holding plastic containers formed lines to draw water from trucks at temporary supply points. Some 40,000 homes in Northern Ireland have been without clean water for several days and residents are carrying water home any way they can.
“The main thing we’ve noticed is the sheer volume of water needed to flush the toilet and keep the place sanitary,” said Kerry Nicholson of south Belfast. The Northern Ireland executive held an emergency meeting Thursday as the British Government promised extra water tankers and the Scottish government shipped truck loads of bottled water by ferry to Larne in Co. Antrim.
Across the island many traders who had a lean Christmas because of snow-bound roads found that their premises were flooded when they reopened after the holiday. Dublin’s most prestigious department store, Brown Thomas, missed the first day of the important post-holiday sales because of water damage. It was the same with the Burgess Department Store in Athlone in the midlands, where managing director Rosie Boles said it was a “killer” to have to turn people away at such an important time.
Ireland has an antiquated system of water pipes laid only two feet beneath the ground, unlike in cold-winter countries like Russia, where pipes are laid five feet underground.
The depth was considered adequate to prevent freezing as temperatures rarely fall much below freezing in Ireland’s temperate climate. During the Arctic spell in December however, the mercury dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit countrywide and even to 0 in a number of locations, breaking all records.
Irish Labour Party spokesman Joe Costello called for the army to be mobilized to cope with what he called an emergency “even more serious than the month-long crisis of snow and ice.”
The forecast is for frost and snow to return in the first week in January. The winter of Ireland’s discontent may just be getting under way.