A rare but dramatic water crisis in a developed nation
December 30, 2010

Water professionals in the United States are acutely aware of the amount of work required to keep municipal water systems working reliably and safely, well below the radar of most public notice. It's mostly a silent service, and the result is sometimes that the public grows so accustomed to the situation that it's never given a second thought. But a water crisis is posing a serious danger to public health in Northern Ireland, as a result of a serious deep freeze that broke lots of water distribution mains and pipes. The weather was exceptional, but we know that extremes can and do occur from time to time -- which is why good engineers add a degree of design conservatism to every project they design (for instance, often placing water mains here in the Midwest a foot below the deepest measured frost).

But all the design conservatism in the world can't make up for inadequate maintenance and upkeep, which is often the secondary cause of failures brought on acutely by events like dramatic storms. We certainly aren't immune to overlooking the age and condition of our own water infrastructure -- it's not unheard-of to find water mains more than a century old.

That's why we should sit up and take notice of the situation in Northern Ireland. It's not a place where no water service has ever been offered -- charities like Water for People are working hard to remedy that crisis for the estimated 1.1 billion people around the world who have no safe drinking water. Instead, Northern Ireland is part the United Kingdom, which is the 6th-largest economy in the world, with average incomes quite similar to ours. It's a fully developed country, with no shortage of civil engineers, laws, or voters with democratic rights to demand better. In other words, it has none of the ordinary obstacles to which we might ordinarily consider ourselves immune that normally are the cause for people to go without water.

In Northern Ireland, the pipes simply broke because they were old and the weather turned cold. And they could break anywhere, especially if we don't invest adequately in our municipal water infrastructures and maintain those systems like the keys to civilization that they are.

December 2010
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last revised December 2010