The story of water



In 2020 Irish Water released their documentary ‘The Story Of Water’, in which they focus on its critical value and explore the ongoing threats to its future. A wide range of speakers introduce us to the challenges as even in a rainy and green country like Ireland, the water related problems are worse than you might expect. The first speaker, Charles Fishman, introduces us directly to a key problem in an economically developed world country, water illiteracy: We have no idea what is required to get the water and we need to understand the cost of water. Ironically the viewer might be surprised by this and how it can lead to the problem Ireland is facing to this date. A hundred years ago Ireland took the first steps in regulating clean water, showing initiative and understanding of the value and need for clean water. Nowadays however, the solutions they came up with began to form the problem. The documentary divides these into three components: water supply, water leakage and waste water. Each component has an impact on the quality and quantity of the available drinkwater and on the environment in and around rivers, estuaries and coastal areas.


Insufficient water supply

160 years ago Dubliners got their water straight from the river, untreated and not safe. Since the first safe water supply, the health conditions and life expectancy went up. To supply more people with safe drinking water, people had to vacate their houses to make place for an expansion of the reservoir. However, there are still large problems with the supply of fresh drinking water. Bacteria in the water are causing diseases and different water boil notices have been active for many years. To prevent the bacteria from spreading into the water the water treatment process will be upgraded by the end of 2020, but the current map of Irish Water Supply and Service update still displays water boil notices active in 2021. Another problem is the increasing demand on drinking water in Dublin. The current preferred solution is to draw water from the river Shannon and transport it, after treatment, via 170 kilometres of pipeline to Dublin (Water Supply Project – Eastern & Midlands, 2014). While the plan was to conduct this pipeline in 2020 for 500 million euros, the current state is that it will be finished in 2024 with an increased cost to 1.3 billion euros (Irish Times, 2020). 

Water leakage

Water supply is under increasing pressure and demand is outgrowing, but the root of this problem is not only increased usage; the big and unexpected cause is leakage. A staggering 43 percent of water is lost nationally and the LGMA (2014) report verifies these values ranging from 32% - 68%. There is a sense of embarrassment on the topic when experts share their opinion. A compelling comparison is made with the Irish brewery Guinness: “Would the community have minded the leakage as much if almost half of their beer leaked into the ground before it could reach us?”. The cause of leakage is underinvestment in maintenance of the network explains George Hawkins. As pressure rises with the increasing demand, the weakest points in the system fail frequently. Professor David Sedlak emphasises the difficulty to not only locate the leak, but also the impracticality to dig it up. Most shockingly is that when the leak is fixed, the subsequent weakest point in the network will fail and this causes an ongoing domino effect. The narrator tries to give a positive projection as the national target is to reduce leakage to 38 percent by 2021. Yet this still seems like an immense loss of water and a lack of long term vision. In the report of IW (2015), they do however state their long term goal of reducing leakage to 18-22% by 2040.

Waste water

The wastewater treatment in Ireland is another problematic component of the problem in the Irish water sector. With drone and on-site footage, the documentary provides evidence for the fact that Ireland discharges raw sewage from 31 areas, equivalent to 78,000 people, into rivers, estuaries and coastal areas. This contamination of surface waters can result in fish kills and poses a threat to public health (EPA, 2020). It is stated in the documentary that the main problem for the insufficient wastewater treatment in Ireland is the result of structural underinvestment in its wastewater infrastructure (WaterBriefing, 2019). In order to upgrade the capacity of Ireland’s wastewater treatment, Ireland’s national water utility company, Irish Water, would invest 1.7 billion euros in several components of the national wastewater treatment processes over the period 2017-2021. However, progress has been slow as less than half of the wastewater treatment projects have been completed by the end of 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 2020).

Cinematographic aspect

The strength of this documentary is that it involves many different views on the water supply problem. From the chartered engineers of Irish Water and different city councils to multiple scientists researching the fresh water and analysing the water quality to the director of Health Protection and local residents suffering from water boil notices. Showing that the problem is not only worrying the people higher up in command, but seriously concerns the local people as well. In addition, the documentary involves the viewer with footage that clearly shows the leakage and waste water problems, which shows the viewer possible involvement in the problem as well.

The documentary misses more opportunities however to involve the audience or local affected residents to be able to aid in providing bottom-up initiatives. It’s a guess if Ireland will improve in the next decade when we don’t know how fast the situation can change if all effort is taken. The documentary lacks more detailed information, but the internet webpage partially makes up for this lack of detailed information on projects and solutions in the documentary. As Brady & Gray (2017) introduce the similar problem in their paper, they state that “public trust within the water management institution is a fundamental building block in successfully evoking acceptance of reforms and sustained behavioural change”. This documentary is a good step in the right direction as it challenges the viewer into critical thinking and further explains the problems on their website. Let’s hope that it sparks as much involvement and understanding as their speaker show.

Dirk Bakker, Dominique Knip and Roan Brandon (Amsterdam Free Univeristy)



Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2020, November). Ireland’s Environment - An Integrated Assessment 2020. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brady, J., & Gray, N. F. (2017). Reform of the Irish water sector: opportunities and challenges. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Water Management, 170(4), 165–174. doi:10.1680/jwama.15.00106

IW (2015) Draft Water Services Strategic Plan. A Plan for the Future of Water Services. Irish Water, Dublin, Ireland. Retrieved from:

LGMA (Local Government Management Agency) (2014) Service Indicators in Local Authorities 2012. LGMA, Dublin, Ireland.

Shannon pipeline cost ‘likely to exceed’ €1.3bn. (2020, July 22) Irish Times. Retrieved from:

Supply and service map- Irish Water. (2021, January). Retrieved from:

Water Supply Project – Eastern & Midlands. (2014, November). Irish Water - The Proposed Water Supply Project. Retrieved from:

WaterBriefing. (2019, November). Irish Water - wastewater infrastructure investment set to increase to almost €400m in 2020. Retrieved from:


Charles Fishman (Author of The Big Thirst)

Ned Fleming (Chartered engineer, Dublin City Council)

Jerry Grant (Former Managing Director Irish Water)

Tom Cuddy (Chartered engineer, Irish Water)

Tom Kinirons (Senior Executive engineer, Dublin City Council)

Kate Gannon (Chartered engineer, Irish Water)

Dr Frances Lucy (Dept. of Environmental Sciences, IT Sligo)

Greg Forde (Head of operations, Inland Fisheries Ireland)

Dr Rory Harington (Senior scientist, VESI environmental Ltd.)

Owen O’Keefe (Freshwater Ecologist Roughan &O’Donovan)

Dr Kevin Kelleher (Assistant National Director Health Protection, HSE)

Niamh O’Riordan (Local Resident)

Geraldine Brennan (Local Resident)

Kevin Love (Civil engineer, Irish Water)

Kieran Collins (Chartered engineer, Irish Water)

Coilí Ó Conghaile (Local resident)

Úna McDonagh (Local Resident)

Rory Beatty (RPS Marine)

Mickey O’Brien (Former coach, Commercial Rowing Club)

Angela Ryan (Chartered engineer, Irish Water)

George Hawkins (Former CEO of DC Water, Washington DC)

Prof. David Sedlak (Environmental engineer, University of California, Berkely)

Gráinne Carey (Leakage Reduction Programme, Irish Water)

Charles Dwyer (Leakage engineer, Lowflo)

Noel Doody (Water inspector, Wicklow County Council)

Darragh Page (Programme Manager, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))

Patrick Blake (Local Resident)

Róisín Garvey (Local Resident and Green Party Councillor)

Dr John Duncan (Lahinch Medical Centre)

Ollie O’Flaherty (Big Wave Surfer)

Eoin Morton (Project Communications, Irish Water)

Captain Michael McCarthy (Former Commercial Manager, Port of Cork)

Lisa Cummins (Open water swimmer)

Catherine Sheridan (Chartered engineer, Irish Water)

Ronnie Randalls (Fisherman)

Dr Heidi Acampora (Marine and Freshwater Research Centre, GMIT)

Anna Aherne (Cobh Tidy Towns)

Jean Hobbs (Ringsend Project Manager, Irish Water)

Dr Ciarán McCausland (Operations and Maintenance manager, Celtic Anglian Water)

Caroline Spillane (Director General, Engineers Ireland)

Paul McGowan (Commissioner and Chairperson, Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU))

Paul Carroll (Scientific Officer, Waterford County Council)

Dr Conor Murphy (Senior Lecturer, Maynooth University)

Richard Mullen (local farmer)

Jerry Mullen (local farmer)

Ruth Gaj-McKeever (Green-Schools Officer, An Taisce)

Tom Lande (kid at green schools)

Elaine Lande (Mother of Tom)

Barry Britton (Surfer and artist)

Beckey-Finn Britton (Clean Coasts Officer for Donegal & Leitrim)

Dr Easkey Britton (Marine Social scientist, NUIG)

NC Britton (Local Resident)


Additional Info

  • Director: Jose Gomez
  • Producer: Irish Water
  • Language: English
  • Year: 2018
  • Duration (min): 46
  • Theme: Water supply, Domestic water, Water quality, pollution, Water and health
  • Access: Free
  • Country: Ireland
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 4
  • Academic quality: 4
  • Social interest: 5