Water: the crisis you might not know about

6 Oct 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Oct 2020

Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash
Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash

Northern Ireland’s water system is bursting at the joins. This is holding back economic and social development and damaging the environment.


Talking about crises can be overwhelming. The problem is capacity. The mind can only take so much, and people tend to prioritise.

We are living in a pandemic. A massive recession is coming. Brexit completes in less than two months, with no clarity as to what that means. Climate change marches on - and might destroy the planet as we know it.

So, if you heard that Northern Ireland has some local problems in desperate need of a fix, you might think those problems will have to wait.

You might also think they relate to political instability, or dealing with the past, or the urgent need to restructure our entire health system.

Most people would draw up a long list of issues before they land on the crisis with local water infrastructure.

Northern Ireland’s water and sewerage needs billions of pounds of investment in the next few years. Failure to do this will shackle economic, social and environmental development.

Often environmental protection is considered at odds with economic progress. This is a naïve position in the long-term but, even in the short-term, things are more complicated.

Managing climate change requires major economic changes. These changes will require sacrifices. However, this is not the only dynamic at play.

Good infrastructure, by its very nature, will facilitate the society it is designed for.

Chronic underfunding of our water system is holding us back economically and socially, as well as damaging the local environment.

There is no either/or here. Fixing the water system will help the economy and help the environment. And the need truly is urgent.

Taps off

NI Water is responsible for maintaining local water infrastructure. Sort of. It is not a private sector organisation – it is owned by the government – but it operates on commercial principles.

However, its ability to invest is not based on its own commercial situation, whether good or bad, but depends on what the government can afford. In truth, Stormont is responsible for our water.

In January, NI Water submitted its latest business plan and associated funding proposal to the Utility Regulator.

The proposal covers the period 2021-2027 and asks for funding of £4.4bn. Of that, over £2bn is for capital investments to try and modernise the system in several areas, to increase capacity.

In short, the issue is this: there are over 100 areas in Northern Ireland, including 25 of our cities and main towns (i.e. hubs for economic growth), where the sewage and wastewater infrastructure has little or no capacity left.

This makes it all but impossible to build new housing or new business premises in these areas (unless other buildings are discontinued from use). This causes obvious issues for the economy, and is a massive practical obstacle for other issues such as NI’s housing (and social housing) shortage.

Moreover, this problem is not standing still. By 2027, NI Water expects another 30 towns to approach capacity.

According to NI Water: “It is no secret that our wastewater infrastructure has already resulted in over 100 areas where wastewater treatment works are at, or rapidly approaching, full capacity and where NI Water is unlikely to be able to accept additional sewer connections

“The Business Plan provides us with a clear blueprint which, if properly funded, affords Northern Ireland with the opportunity to halt and reverse some of the impact of underinvestment.  The Plan highlights in detail how £2.2bn of capital funding can be allocated over a period of six years.

“It also identifies ways to prioritise the investment needed in the Living With Water Programme [the scheme for essential sewage investment] for the Greater Belfast area and spread it across two Price Control Periods… This will support the work underway in the Belfast City Deal, the benefits of which reach far beyond Belfast itself.”


NI Water published its annual report for 2019-20 earlier this year. It goes into significant detail about all the things the organisation is able to do – but the key messages are about what it has not been able to achieve.

The organisation’s Chair Dr Leonard O’Hagan CBE wrote in the report: “Northern Ireland is unique within the UK as the only region with a broken funding model, where the regulated water utility is unable to fully implement the economic regulator’s final determination due to public expenditure constraints.

“Against this backdrop, NI Water has continued to successfully deliver private sector levels of performance and efficiency. This, however, cannot continue with sustained and significant underfunding. Our PC15 business plan (2015-21) started with a constrained funding of £990m against a £1.7bn requirement…

“The underfunding has already resulted in curbs to economic development with new housing and businesses being unable to connect to our sewerage system in major parts of our cities and in over 100 towns.

“Unless we start properly investing in our failing wastewater infrastructure we will have to make difficult choices about our economy and our natural environment. The scale of the problem requires a major, inescapable step change in investment. Over £2bn is required in our next business plan period PC21 (2021-27), including £0.5bn for the Living with water programme to address strategic drainage in Belfast.

“Although various infrastructure funding models exist across the UK and Ireland, a solution for Northern Ireland has not yet been identified. Failure to do so will lead to an infrastructure funding crisis with negative impacts for our environment and economy.”


So, there it is. A crisis, requiring urgent attention, that is not a regular part of local political debate. Which is not to say this is a sudden or unanticipated issue.

The problem is capacity, in this case our individual capacity. Northern Ireland has loads of problems and any one human mind can only focus on so much at any given time.

The new Executive at Stormont is committed to providing investment for water. This commitment was laid down in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), which says:

“The Executive will​ invest urgently in wastewater infrastructure which is at or nearing capacity in many places across Northern Ireland, including in Belfast, limiting growth.”

NDNA is a good document in many ways but it is not a paper chock-full with detail. The only expansion on this comment to urgent investment is the following:

“The Executive will benefit from increased funding for capital infrastructure investment as a result of the UK Government’s infrastructure revolution

Infrastructure funding will enable the Executive to invest in a range of potential capital projects such as:

  • Essential sewage investment (Living With Water Programme)”

That sounds good. However, a lot has changed since January. The problem is capacity, in this case financial capacity.

Stormont does not have billions spare to fix the local water system. Westminster needs to provide funding, either through the Barnett consequentials of new UK-wide spending or as a dedicated spending package gifted to NI.

There is no guarantee that either of those things will happen any time soon.

In the coming years – and, in particular, with the upcoming Programme for Government – Stormont must prioritise.

It would be easy to kick the water can down the road. This issue will not capture people’s imagination in the same way as many other emotive (and, indeed, pressing) concerns.

But that might be a mistake.

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