History of Ireland’s community-owned rural water sector

Background & early development

Until the 1950s piped water supplies were virtually unheard of outside of Ireland’s towns and cities. The case for communal piped water supplies in rural Ireland was raised in the late 1940s, the then Chief Medical Advisor, James Deeny, arguing that ‘the provision of piped water and, better still, a domestic hot water system should be our first consideration in household planning’. There was growing concern at the social consequences of an inadequate water supply, as the daily drudgery of drawing water supplies in buckets from wells, rivers or lakes
was cited as a reason for the flight from the countryside by young women in particular.
The absence of a reliable and safe water supply had potentially serious economic consequences for rural communities also. Industry, including the emerging tourism sector, required a water services infrastructure that was unavailable outside larger towns and cities......

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Transformation under the Rural Water Programme

By the mid 1990s, the GWS sector was in crisis. Schemes lacked several essential criteria for sustaining a successful water supply: appropriate treatment (capable of dealing with variations in raw water quality), relevant and consistent training/mentoring of operatives, effective business organisation and forward planning. Above all they lacked the capacity to meet the financial burden of delivering a consistent quality water supply, much less the capital demands of upgrade works. Notwithstanding all of this, the case taken by a resident of Ballycroy GWS to the European Court of Justice would confirm that group water schemes must comply with the same onerous quality standards demanded of a municipal water supply and, furthermore, that the State has a responsibility to ensure that this standard is
achieved by all water providers that come under the Drinking Water Regulations (i.e. those supplying more than 50 people or smaller supplies with a social/commercial connection).
Any solution to the problems afflicting the GWS sector would have to be found through
a new framework that would equip the GWS sector to deliver on its statutory responsibilities. In 1998 that framework emerged in the form of a Rural Water Programme that has transformed the GWS sector.  

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The NFGWS: its formation and role

In December 1996, the then Environment Minister, Brendan Howlin, TD, announced the abolition of service charges in respect of domestic water supplies on public water schemes operated by local authorities around the country. The private group scheme sector, serving in the region of 150,000 homes and rural businesses was excluded from the announcement.

Throughout January 1997, group water schemes began a series of meetings and consultations to determine how the sector should respond to their exclusion from the measure announced by Minister Howlin. A meeting in Barnaderg, County Galway, on 30 January 1997 was followed three days later by a very large and representative gathering in Knock, County Mayo. At this meeting, on Sunday, 2 February 1997, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes was established and a National Executive put in place.
The NFGWS was quickly recognised as the representative organisation for private and part-private group water schemes in Ireland. The Federation was incorporated as a co-operative society in 1998.

On 2nd February 2018 National Federation of Group Water Schemes celebrated 21 years. An ecumenical service was held in Knock, County Mayo., immediately before the Annual Delegate Conference on 8th March 2018, to mark this anniversary celebration. Local ministers of religion from several denominations presided over the poignant and reflective ceremony that acknowledged, in particular, the contribution of deceased GWS activists

For a full account of the role of the NFGWS in the community-owned rural water sector click here.