The Water in Ireland
Environmentalism and European frivolity.
12:00 AM, Jun 1, 2007 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THE THEOLOGIAN David Hart famously wrote that Europe is dying of metaphysical boredom. That may be true. But surely unseriousness has something to do with it, too. For the latest example of European dithering, we turn to the Republic of Ireland.
In the waning days of April, Ireland's parliament, the Dáil, was dissolved and new elections were called. The sitting prime minister (the Irish call the position the taoiseach) was a fellow named Bertie Ahern, who led the center-left Fianna Fáil party. Because Ireland, like many American big cities, has no right wing, the contest was between Fianna Fáil and its smaller center-left coalition partners and a more radical coalition of Ireland's Fine Gael, Labour, and Green parties.
The brief election campaign--barely five weeks--was dominated by a low-grade financial scandal of Ahern's, but when the scandal wasn't in the headlines, one of the main issues was . . . climate change. The Green party made global warming the center of its campaign, and Ahern's party anted up, trying to outdo them in their devotion to the environment, touting a recently imposed plastic-bag tax, a pilot program to eliminate chewing-gum litter, more bicycle lanes, a proposal to use wood as a renewable energy source, and a plan to somewhat reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
This last item--reducing emissions--also carried with it a corollary: a plan to pay about €270 million (roughly $364 million) for carbon credits over the next eight years. This in a country with a gross domestic product of only $177 billion.
That's a pretty substantial commitment to the environment, and you'd tip your thatch hat to the Irish for being so concerned. But the reality is that even if everything the global-warming enthusiasts believe is true, there is one simple, immutable problem: Only 4.2 million people live in Ireland. That's 0.063 percent of the world's population, and, if the climate really is changing, then it's highly improbable that Ireland's handful of residents can do anything about it. (Incidentally, despite the traditionally muddled election results, Ahern is now set for his third straight term.)
THE ONLY THING the Irish might do for the environment is slaughter the 6 million cows and sheep that dot their countryside. A 2006 U.N. report suggested that livestock account for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that "cause" "global warming." That's more than cars, trucks, buses, and planes put together.
What makes this all particularly interesting is that, while the Irish were fussing this way and that over what non-solutions they could offer to a problem that may or may not exist, they glossed over one very real and pressing environmental problem: the water in Galway.
Galway is Ireland's third-largest--and fastest-growing--city, home to about 159,000 people in the metropolitan area. And since March, its water has been undrinkable.
THE EPISODE began in early March, when 43 people in Galway fell ill with similar symptoms after drinking tap water. On March 15, the city issued a "boil water" alert, saying no one knew what the problem was, but the water probably wasn't safe either to drink or brush teeth with. It took an additional week before city officials could diagnose the problem, which they did on March 21, announcing that their water supply had become infected with parasites from the genus Cryptosporidium.
The disease they cause, cryptosporidiosis, is a nasty bug. The parasites can be found in any number of places--say, the dead carcass of an animal that makes its way into a reservoir. The Galway authorities never did find the source of the problem. But over the next several weeks, they counseled residents to use bottled water or to boil the bejeezus out of their tap water. They introduced reimbursement schemes to help defer the cost of bottled water, which must have helped, because soon the city was awash in glass and plastic bottles.
No one in Galway seems to have a strict count on how many bottles of water were brought in, but some back-of-the-envelope math will do for speculative purposes. Suppose you have 159,000 people consuming two liters of water a day, say an average of two one-liter bottles per person. That would be 23.85 million bottles of waste so far. (On April 30, city officials announced they would be giving out clear plastic bags--for free!--to help people recycle.)
And it's not just the physical waste--imagine the energy costs. That amount of water would weigh 26,235 tons, without packaging. I'll leave it to the environmentalists to calculate the carbon impact of transportation and distribution for such a haul.