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Jake O'Kane: Even with all our rain, why does our water system wilt when the sun shines?

It is risible that in the 21st century, NI Water says our water shortage is due to people holidaying at home and using garden hoses to fill paddling pools, especially when compared to the challenges of water supply in Ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago

A record-breaking week of hot weather started with 31.2C being recorded in Ballywatticock, Co Down, last Saturday, with Armagh beating that with 31.4C on Thursday. The sunshine once again highlighted the weaknesses of the north's water infrastructure. Picture by Mal McCann
Jake O'Kane

IF you turned on the news and it reported there were shortages of sand in the Sahara, or that they were running out of snow in the Arctic, you would no doubt be baffled.

Yet, after a few days of sunshine in NI, we see nothing unusual in being informed of water shortages – even though we spend most of the year inundated with rain.

So abundant is our rainfall, I’m convinced that within a few generations, our children will evolve webbed feet.

Many homes have already suffered water outages, and hosepipe bans are threatened. We’ve had the ludicrous sight of NI Water driving emergency supplies across country by lorry – so much for global warming.

The history of NI Water since its formation in 2007 hasn’t been a happy one.

Leaving aside the issue of water charges, it has been found guilty of multiple instances of polluting our rivers – for instance, it was fined £60,000 relating to two separate discharges from a sewage treatment works at Killinchy, Co Down in 2017.

There have been various other ups and downs over the years and while there is no doubt that NI Water is underfunded, this points to the bigger issue of whether politicians really want to make the difficult decisions needed to secure that much-needed investment.

Our politicians argue about flags, bonfires, and language, but ignore the reality that there were homes this week where nothing came out of the tap.

Only last year in a court case involving NI Water and property developers, High Court judge Mr Justice Horner sounded a warning that we “could be engulfed in a major catastrophe if urgent upgrades to worn out water services aren’t carried out”.

It is risible that in the 21st century, NI Water says our water shortage is due to people holidaying at home and using garden hoses to fill paddling pools, especially when compared to the challenges of water supply in Ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago.

The Egyptian civilisation thrived for over 30 centuries in one of the most arid areas on the planet. Their success was based entirely on their ability to control and manipulate the Nile River which they used to irrigate the Nile Delta.

While the Egyptians possessed the foresight to build monumental water reservoirs to cover the years when Nile water fell, NI Water have operated a policy of selling-off local reservoirs; the tale of Portavo Reservoir in Co Down is a saga in its own right.

So, I’d pose this question - how was it possible for the Ancient Egyptians to have a secure water source surrounded by desert, yet NI Water continue to fail even though they operate in a region which has at its centre Lough Neagh, a freshwater lake with a surface area of 151 miles?

It was due to the heatwave that I ended up taking my first lateral flow test, having decided to trim high hedges in the good weather.

I’d taken all the sensible precautions around being ginger in the sun – I wore a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and trousers, and covered in sunblock what little portion of my skin remained exposed.

What I didn’t factor in was the ambient heat, which led to me getting heat exhaustion and a mild case of heat stroke.

As some of my symptoms matched Covid, my wife unpacked a lateral flow test from the box my 13-year-old son used for school. Standing at the bathroom door she barked instructions, “No, no, push it further up your nose.”

My eyes watered as I felt the probe scratch the bottom of my brain. “Right, that’s better, now use it to scrape the very back of your throat”.

Stunned, I turned indignantly. “Hold on a second, it’s just been up my nose”. My wife quickly reminded me yet again that I knew nothing, so after being sick in the sink I repeated the process and thankfully, the result was negative.

My wife subsequently admitted she’d gotten the order wrong and it should have been throat then nose.

I forgave her, suggesting she should join NI Water, where such talents would be rewarded.

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