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Chronic Underinvestment

Underinvestment in infrastructure was the most likely culprit behind the recent Northern Ireland water crisis as watermains froze then broke, emptying reservoirs and running communities dry.

Valve tower and overflow

A big part of the problem for communities of all sizes is the attitude that if you try hard enough, you’ll get something for nothing. Where most fall foul is when the cycle of grants available for infrastructure waxes and wanes, leaving an unsteady funding source for communities, who come to rely on the grant funding to pay for capital upgrades or even deferred maintenance items.

The common response is to fund only enough money to cover the years when grants are available, seeing the grant as an offset rather than a bonus. Grant funding should not reduce the amount raised through the standard means of raising money for capital works, (either user fees or property taxes of one form or another).

Is Privatization the Answer?

Out of this disaster, there have been cries for privatization of the water utility, claiming that it wouldn’t have happened if it were run “as a business”. Although, from some reports, communities with privatized water systems in Wales, Worcestershire and Yorkshire were hit with similar freezing, although on a smaller scale. The greater question is what freedom has the utility had in setting rates and ensuring a funding policy that ensures infrastructure renewal?

The problems with Northern Ireland Water lie in a lack of money from the government. There has been less than half the level of investment in Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure compared to Britain’s.

Northern Ireland Water was made into a company in 2004, while the plans for water charges were dropped. A series of job cuts saw more than half its workers lose their jobs in the last six years.

Whole sections of the company have been outsourced, including customer service. What investment there has been has come through public-private partnership.

Remarkably, a week before the crisis broke, the water regulator was demanding cuts of 40 percent.

Via: Underfunding and cuts lie behind Northern Ireland’s water disaster

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I’m still trying to find out what material the pipes that burst were made of, there was one reference to an age of up to 60 years, which would indicate steel, cast iron, and possibly asbestos cement pipe. I found a reference to the age of sewer mains, but not of water.

Is Northern Ireland Water that Different from Most Utilities?

Northern Ireland Water is a relatively new organization that was formed to centralize the management of the myriad of small water utilities across the region, typically being run by local governments. It is interesting to read some quotes from the Hansard of a parliamentary review entitled “Measuring the Performance of Northern Ireland Water”, which was held in July of 2010. Most of the concerns from this meeting were based around water quality standards and benchmarking, (a topic for another post I’m sure). See below for some excerpts:

Questioning the imperfect quality results, the response:

We have the best-ever quality of drinking water in Northern Ireland. In an era when resources are constrained, driving up marginal improvements in the quality of our drinking water will cost disproportionate amounts of money. Priorities have to be established and choices made, but at the moment, other bits of the infrastructure are further behind. Priority should probably be given to investing in those areas.

Via: Measuring the Performance of Northern Ireland Water

Questioning investment in water quality upgrades, the NIW representative admirable diverted the answer to include infrastructure investment in general…

If a water main is nearing the end of its asset life and, if it is an iron main that is corroding inside, it needs to be replaced not only for water quality reasons, but other associated reasons. It may cause low pressure and perhaps burst, which would mean interruptions to supply.

We have a significant water main infrastructure. There is 26,000 km of water mains, so there needs to be continuing investment in maintenance to maintain the system.

It seems as though the sewer system may be in as bad or worse shape than the water network. Fortunately for water and sewer authorities, failures in sewer systems are usually very localized in nature, so they typically receive little attention…

We have 15,000 km of sewerage network, which, if unwound, would stretch from here to Australia. Our records on that sewerage system, some of which was put in the ground 90 or 100 years ago, were not good. Therefore, we are carrying out a series of drainage area studies to enable us to completely understand discrete parts of the sewerage system, to discover where those combined sewer overflows are and to understand the ones that have unsatisfactory intermittent discharges (UIDs) associated with them.

It seems that the report they were reading (in July 2010), showed that NIW already had a poor record of responding to water outages prior to this disaster…

Mr Beggs:

Paragraph 5.6 says that 609 houses were without water for more than 24 hours. That is quite a significant period and by far the worst performance in the United Kingdom. Paragraph 5.7 shows that you attribute that to longer pipes and to a more dispersed population. Do you not think that people in rural areas who have had no water supply for several days would be very unhappy with that huge disruption to their household?

Mr MacKenzie:

They may not have had mains supply, but when we are faced with a situation where supply is off for more 24 hours, we do not leave people without water. If people contact us to say that they will be without water, we will bowser water or send out bottled water. During the freeze-thaw in December or January, we delivered a huge amount of bottled water to homes. We would do that if a customer contacted us and we thought that we could not get them back their supply within a reasonable time. I know that that is not ideal and that it is not the same as having a mains water supply, but the fact is that the network requires more investment.

Mr Priestly:

I want to come back to Mr Beggs’s wider point. Everyone on this side of the Table accepts that such a situation is hugely disruptive to families and businesses. We would much rather that it did not happen. However, if it does happen, Northern Ireland Water will take action to try to mitigate it. Indeed, the reasons why it happens are set out in the report.

Little did they know that these words would come back to haunt them in a mere five months. Some utilities are well prepared to respond to outages and pride themselves on excelling in the metrics based practice of benchmarking, a common method of comparing utility performance across a wide range of indicators against similar sized utilities. In that sense, Northern Ireland Water is not a likely candidate for excellence when compared to other utilities around the world – but neither are many others. For every “excellent” utility, there are probably many that have occasional to regular “near-misses” and meet the drinking water regulations as much out of luck as through competence.

The chronic levels of under-investment in all forms of infrastructure across the western world are a timebomb waiting to explode. Utilities and all levels of government need to ensure adequate maintenance and replacement funding is available for all infrastructure, or a plan is in place to “gracefully degrade” the level of service to a sustainable level.

Comments have been turned off due to Chronic Spam levels – note to self – don`t use the word Chronic in a post title.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.