The Rivers Trust is raising concerns following a policy proposal in the Department for Infrastructure’s (DfI) equality impact assessment report published last week suggesting that, in a bid to meet the Secretary of State’s budget cut demands, Northern Ireland Water may be forced into a position to stop treating wastewater before it is discharged into rivers and the seas.
All-Ireland Director of The Rivers Trust Mark Horton said: “The DfI described this plan as unpalatable, but in our expert opinion, it’s unacceptable. This move, if implemented, would result in significant pollution and environmental degradation in Northern Ireland and risk transboundary pollution in Ireland.
“It is a false economy to take such a retrograde step. It threatens to undo decades of work and investment that has already gone into cleaning up and trying to protect our freshwater and marine environments. It also risks our future ambitions for sustainable healthy growth and freshwater recovery.”
The Department for Infrastructure’s own assessment outlines how the proposed policy will have a negative impact on hospitals, health services, agri-foods, environmental services, and council services.
Mark continued: “Nobody wants to see raw sewage in our local rivers as such a move would endanger public health, destroy biodiversity and undermine our local economy. We have seen how this model does not work, as last year alone, private water companies discharged raw sewage into English waters over 300,000 times, often resulting in serious pollution incidents for rivers and impacting their users. In Northern Ireland, unscreened sewage discharge would also increase the ‘out of sewer flooding’ incidents, which could devastate local businesses and communities.
“We depend on these freshwater sources for our drinking water, for local businesses and housing to develop, for our agri-sector to function, for our tourism sector to thrive and to support biodiversity.
“Our local rivers are already in serious trouble and facing increasing threats. In 2021, the Water Framework Directive Statistics Report revealed that none of Northern Ireland's 496 rivers, lakes and coastal waters achieved a 'good overall status' rating for water quality.
Clean rivers are not just an environmental issue but also a public health matter and an economic driver. Polluted water can lead to a host of human and animal health problems and result in increased water treatment costs to supply clean drinking water.
“Beyond the immediate negative impact on water quality, discharging unscreened sewage into rivers or the marine environment would see Northern Ireland in breach of multiple international environmental conventions. This would undoubtedly result in prosecutions against NI Water and the imposition of future fines at a cost to public finances.”
The Rivers Trust is also critical of the continual scaremongering and politicisation of the funding of water supplies in Northern Ireland, saying that it stifles informed discussion around the much-needed investment in services essential for human life and undermines economic confidence and sustainability.
The charity intends to respond to the DfI consultation and to urgently write to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the leaders of all main political parties to express concerns about the policy suggestion to discharge untreated sewage into local rivers and the marine environment because of budget cuts.
Mark concluded: “A long-term lack of investment in the water infrastructure and a political failure to implement a sustainable funding model for Northern Ireland Water has been having a direct negative impact on our local economy and environment for decades.
“Manufacturing, house building, farming, tourism, and recreation need fit-for-purpose water and wastewater infrastructure. Therefore, a sustainable, long-term, invest-to-save business model for Northern Ireland Water is essential to the health and economy of Northern Ireland. We need investment to explore nature-based solutions and empower and encourage water-friendly communities.
“We are calling on all our politicians to prioritise water and work together to protect our foundational shared natural resources. We want society to recognise the value of rivers and the importance of protecting and improving them so all life can flourish.
“Recklessly turning Northern Ireland’s rivers and marine environments into open sewers is not the solution to dealing with a financial and governance crisis that has been in the making for years and is now spilling over due to the current austerity pressures.”