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Poisoned locals, no holy water and worried tourists - Galway pays a high price for the economic boom
It is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe. Tens of thousands of foreign tourists flock every summer to what has been called the party capital of Ireland. The narrow streets are crammed with visitors in search of traditional bars and music.
Galway is also one of the wettest cities in Europe. Having been founded beside a sheltered harbour on the western coast, it is exposed to drenching downpours that blow in from the Atlantic. But for the past five weeks, however, no one has been able to drink what comes out of the local taps.
Visitors arriving at hotels are being handed bottles of mineral water. Some bars have stopped providing ice with whiskey or vodka, others have shipped in fresh supplies from Donegal. The crisis could last until July and the tourism industry is beginning to grow anxious amid rumours that visitors are cancelling their holidays.
Nearly 200 people have fallen ill after being infected by the cryptosporidium parasite that has contaminated large areas beyond the city and is threatening to spread into neighbouring counties. The city council is advising that tap water should not be used for brushing teeth, gargling, making ice or washing salads. Having a bath in it is, supposedly, less dangerous. The Archbishopric of Tuam has had to find an alternative source of holy water to bless in case it poisons parishioners.
For Ireland, a country covered in bogs and vast lakes, the dismal quality of its water has suddenly become an acute political embarrassment just as a general election is about to be called.
Shortly before Easter the EU Commission sent Dublin two final warnings about poor water standards and inadequate controls over sewage discharges. If there is no dramatic improvement by the summer, the EU could impose daily fines until the necessary infrastructure improvements are completed.
Attempts by the environment department to blame local councils have enabled opposition parties to transform the water crisis into a question of governmental competence. The Green party is expected to make large gains at the polls; it already has five representatives in the Dail.
No one has so far traced the precise source of the Galway infection, but the massive expansion in new housing fuelled by the economic boom and the failure to upgrade sewage treatment facilities is being widely blamed.
Suspicions have focused on a sewage treatment plant at Oughterard, north of Galway, which pumps effluent into Lough Corrib. The Green party mayor of Galway, Niall Ó Brolcháin, claims the plant, built 60 years ago to cater for 250 houses, is unable to cope with the sewage from the now 800 homes in Oughterard that have spread out over the land. "Water services are at capacity and have been for some time," Mr Ó Brolcháin said. "Yet we are still continuing to develop more houses. That's wrong. That's why we are in this mess."
The Fianna Fáil environment minister, Dick Roche, has in turn attacked Galway city council for failing to use €21m (£14.2m) made available to upgrade another plant.
Tony Lowes, who works with the pressure group Friends of the Irish Environment that took the first complaints about water quality to the EU, said yesterday that the pollution problem was extensive because water sources have not been protected as housing and intensive farming methods have spread. There have been recent cryptosporidium outbreaks in Waterford and Monaghan; other towns at other times have had to recommend tap water be boiled.
"We are in a primitive situation," Mr Lowes warned. "The sources of our water and our lakes are getting more and more polluted. It's obvious in the increase in algae blooms.
"Because of the economic boom people have been punching holes in the aquifers and leaving them unprotected. There's been over-development and inadequate sewage infrastructure. Farmers use small watercourses and the slurry flows into water supplies.
"There's no inspection test for new houses and septic tanks. Percolation tests [supposed to show how groundwater drains away] have been provided by the [housing] developers."
Irish landowners believe they are entitled to build wherever they want, Mr Lowes said.
An EU Commission spokesman in Brussels confirmed that "Ireland has one of the worst water qualities in Europe". A case was first taken against the republic in 2002. "The overall level of contaminated supplies has gone down but it's still a high number," he said. "The Irish situation has been pretty bad."
The cryptosporidium parasite can cause severe diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. The Galway Advertiser and other Irish newspapers feature pictures of locals queuing at supermarkets weighed down by heavy flagons of mineral water. This week the city council introduced a buy-one-bottle, get-one-free scheme to help cut costs.
The phrase "water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink" - taken from Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner - has featured in many despairing comments. At least 90,000 homes are affected. But there is also growing anger over the realisation that numerous warnings have been ignored. A group of anglers on Lough Corrib who took their concerns about human and animal sewage damaging fish stocks to the environment department three years ago has claimed they were dismissed as "tree-hugging flat-earthers".
In a letter to The Irish Times this month the Irish environment minister, Dick Roche, declared: "The reality [is] that legal and practical responsibility for delivering a clean water supply to households in Galway lies with Galway city council.
"Funding was made available to Galway city council to replace its old Terryland water plant. The inability of the old plant to produce potable water is a key factor in the current problems in Galway city and the surrounding area."
Ireland's environmental protection agency, which only last month was given powers to prosecute local authorities over poor quality drinking water, said it was working with Galway to solve the infection.
"We will be looking at [prosecution] if needs be," a spokeswoman said.
Explainer: Housing growth
The practice of covering the Irish countryside with new homes was originally derided as 'bungalow blight'.
The long-running property boom associated with the republic's new-found prosperity has added to the pressure on infrastructure.
More than 93,000 homes and apartments were completed last year, double the number than as recently as 1999.
The housing stock has increased by 50% in the past decade.
Developers may be responding to a demand for rural lifestyles, but council officials in Wicklow, immediately south of Dublin, have introduced a ban on building in local towns and villages.
According to Friends of the Earth, when the European environment agency studied satellite images of Ireland, the republic looked like it had 'measles'.
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