Reflection on 2010 Northern Ireland Water Shortage Crisis

Guest post today from Rebel, a long-time SHTF Blog reader that lives in Ireland. He’s writing about the 2010 Ireland water crisis that happened over Christmas. Interesting story and well written.

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The two weeks before Christmas were unusually cold in the North of Ireland. Temperatures plunged to -18C in some places and the countryside looked like a scene from Narnia. It’s not something we’re used to – few people have snow tires, and the road services struggled to keep main roads open. Frozen pipes were a problem for some folks, but the real damage came just after Christmas with a rapid thaw. Suddenly there were reports of burst pipes *everywhere* and Northern Ireland Water was overwhelmed with complaints. Officially the water company is ‘an arms length body’, but under control of the local government. Translating this into ordinary language it meant there was a lot of finger pointing about who was responsible.

With water leaking everywhere, suddenly reservoirs started to run dry, and this lead to the water being shut off to a huge portion of the population. Dissemination of information was a problem – when is my water going off/on? Where is drinking water being distributed ? At what time ?

The website was unable to cope, and even if you got access, the information was difficult to find and out of date. Being over the holiday period, the call center was lightly manned and flooded with calls (forgive the pun). When water started to be distributed suddenly people had to find ways to carry it, and make sure it was boiled. Some bottled water did become available, but it was limited.

Over the course of a week the leaks were plugged, the water rotated and slowly things came back to normal. There were some immediate learning points:

  1. You use a lot of water. A lot more than you think. You might think you have a lot in your cistern /stockpiled etc, but that won’t last long.
  2. Water is heavy and difficult to haul. You need containers and a vehicle. One point of concern was elderly people who couldn’t easily get to distribution points. If you had no vehicle how much do you think you’re going to be able to carry?
  3. Radio and TV talking heads nobody gave practical advice on how to live in a low water situation – sponge washing, using wipes, re-using gray water for flushing etc. Don’t rely on them – learn yourself. Some folks were taking water out of the local rivers, and that leads to the next point.
  4. You need some way to make water safe to drink. Boiling, water filters, etc. You can’t rely on drinking water being immediately available. One area of particular concern was infants who needed formula feed. In a real SHTF scenario pre-made formula or filtered and treated water would be worth MTG (more than gold).
  5. Sanitation – this was in the middle of the ‘flu season and with people unable to wash as often as they wanted germs were a concern. We used a lot of hand sanitizer when we went out.
  6. People are resourceful – some were using diet cola to flush with since it was cheaper than bottled water. A local pub hired a load of porta-loos to make sure they were open on New Years Eve. In a real SHTF scenario some people will quickly adapt and start to thrive. This could be a good thing or a bad thing.
  7. We’re getting a rainwater butt.

The investment required to update the water network will be huge, so we could have these problems for some time. If this had coincided with a power cut (which has often happened in the past) the situation could have been much more serious. Remember – this is Ireland. It rains all the time. We are never short of water, but this brought home the fact there can be, in the words of the ancient mariner ‘water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.’

– Rebel