The National Water Forum / An Fóram Uisce – working for the common good
If a country’s waters are the prism through which a society’s relationship with its environment can be assessed, then Ireland has a case to answer. An Fóram Uisce, established earlier this year, in its submission on the Draft River Basin Management Plan, noted with concern ‘the continued and long term deterioration of the country’s water bodies’ and that ‘this deterioration occurred despite an on-going significant investment programme aimed at improving the overall quality.’
According to the Draft Plan, about 50% of the at risk water bodies are impacted by agriculture; 10% are impacted by afforestation, and 10% by peat extraction. The majority of water bodies are therefore impacted by direct land use activities.
So, could it be argued that the Irish water quality problem is essentially a land use issue?
If so, we need to be looking at land use as the primary issue, with deteriorating water quality being merely symptomatic of deeper systemic issues – which of themselves may pose an even bigger challenge than water protection.
In 2014, researchers in Sheffield University warned that UK soils had ‘only 100 harvests left in them.’ Echoing this warning, Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary, in a speech delivered in October 2017, stated that the UK is 30 to 40 years away from the ‘fundamental eradication of soil fertility’ in parts of the country. At the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA) he stated that:
‘Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict but no country can withstand the loss of its soil fertility. If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of the soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.’ (The Guardian, 25th October, 2017)
As Ireland’s biggest indigenous industry, a thriving and secure agriculture and food sector are pivotal to the well-being of the country as a whole. It is imperative that the economic potential of the sector is optimised while its long-term future is secured through more sustainable methods.
The environmental pressures of ongoing intensification, as evidenced most obviously in deteriorating water quality, point to the need for a different model of agricultural production and to different incentivisation approaches which reward farmers whose production systems meet sustainability criteria.
The impacts to water that arise from disturbances of peat include siltation and high ammonium concentrations. What is sometimes referred to as ‘peat harvesting‘ in Ireland is probably more accurately described as ‘peat extraction.’ The ongoing practice of peat extraction in Ireland needs urgent review, considering its impact on water bodies, on the large-scale destruction of the productive capacity of the ‘cut away’ sites; on alternative uses for such sites and on the social and economic impact and cost of the cessation of peat extraction.
Much of Ireland’s afforested land is land that is marginal, frequently close to some of Ireland’s remaining pristine water bodies and abutting many of the country’s water bodies as a whole. In total about 730,000 hectares are under forestry in Ireland, about 10% of the total land area of the country. While the forestry sector in Ireland generally needs to look in great detail at its impact on water quality, there is a particular responsibility on the state here by virtue of the fact that such a large proportion – 336,000ha’s (54%) – of Ireland’s afforested land is in public ownership.
It is to be hoped that imaginative approaches with regard to all these sectors might not only reverse the current negative impact of each of the three on water quality but that they could be, individually and in concert , marshalled to contribute in a positive way to the achievement of water quality goals.
In this regard, the Smart Farming initiative led jointly by the IFA and the EPA is particularly relevant, aiming as it does to show how farm incomes can be maintained and grown while strict environmental criteria are being adhered to. Similarly, initiatives currently under way led by the dairy co-ops call attention to the synergy between clean production systems and commercial goals where it comes to dairy production. Likewise, projects which involve the planting of river banks with indigenous trees and vegetation are a further example of such regenerative innovations.
An Fóram Uisce consists of all the relevant nongovernmental stakeholders with a concern with water quality. Its task is to advise the Minister on objectives, approaches and initiatives relevant to the attainment of good status in our close to 5000 water bodies. In doing this it will attempt to take on board the sometimes different or competing interests of the stakeholders which make up An Fóram while never departing from the core objective of water quality enhancement.
An Fóram must constantly challenge itself to bring added value to this national project, complementing and critiquing the work of the many statutory bodies with a role in this field. Its diverse, interdisciplinary composition lends it a particular strength in this regard. So, it can contribute to the debate and the decision making on priorities; heighten public awareness of the water quality challenge through the many organisations represented on it; secure organisational buy-in or stakeholder consensus on conservation initiatives which might otherwise encounter public resistance, and point to policy options which might not otherwise arise.
But there is also a sense that An Fóram must be inspired by higher ideals. These may be concerned with a commitment to the ‘common good’ and to ideals of democracy which can be traced back to Aristotle’s ancient Greece. As Aristotle saw it, ‘a state is something more than an investment; its purpose is not merely to provide a living but to make a life that is worthwhile” (Riesing, C.D., Aristotle’s Common Good – A Historical Analysis of Aristotle’s Politics; Portland State University; 2014). Worthwhileness was achieved where private, selfish aims were subordinated to those of the common, public good.
If An Fóram is to transcend the role of a mere brokerage function between competing interests, it must be motivated by such an ethos. Considering the stake which future generations have in the deliberations and decisions of the current one on environmental issues, this ethical imperative becomes all the more important.
Tom Collins, Chair, An Fóram Uisce www.nationalwaterforum.ie