NFGWS marks special anniversary

The first NFGWS board of directors and employee. L-R: Paddy Ward, Dr Jerry Cowley, Bernard Keeley, Catriona Devaney (administrator), and Séan Clerkin. Board members missing from photo: Gearóid De Faoite and Noreen Donoghue.

On 8 April 1998, some 25 years ago, the fledgling National Federation of Group Water Schemes was registered as a co-operative. It would prove to be a seminal year for an organisation that had come into existence a year previously, in the wake of a government decision to abolish domestic water charges.

While its initial focus centred around the immediate issue of financial support for GWS daily operations, by 1998 the NFGWS — and indeed the entire rural water sector — was turning its attention to drinking water quality, sustainability, and the need to address years of chronic capital under-investment.

The new Federation would quickly find itself leading from the front, in partnership with the newly elected government and local authorities, as they embarked on a 25 year journey that has seen over €1 billion invested in a sector that has been transformed into a sustainable, reliable and inspirational resource for rural Ireland today.

To mark this is important anniversary, the NFGWS commissioned a documentary video, which includes interviews with personnel, past and present, from across the rural water sector. They each gave their unique perspective on the Federation’s role and the key achievements of the past 25 years.


Dr Jerry Cowley and Seán Clerkin were founding board members, who would go on to serve as chairperson (2000-2002) and national co-ordinator (2000-2010) of the NFGWS, respectively. Catriona Devaney, the Federation’s first employee, has been ever-present since its establishment.

As a principal officer in the Department of Environment and Local Government, Jim Ganley played a key role in the development of the Rural Water Programme and the GWS sector for many years. Meanwhile, former Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) chief executive officer, Séamus O’Donohoe, provided invaluable support to the NFGWS regarding governance.

All of the aforementioned personalities were among those interviewed as part of the documentary.


The NFGWS was formed January of 1997, following a meeting in County Mayo. Catriona Devaney jovially describes it as ‘the second miracle of Knock’.

‘It was wonderful meeting. It was great night to be from rural Ireland, and to see the strength and will of the people to get something done.’

Dr Jerry Cowley remarks: ‘That was the impetus for rural Ireland to get up and, like a giant, it ran through the countryside and took over.’

The new Federation’s goal was fairness and equity for GWS members, many of whom were still receiving drinking water that had little or no treatment. The NFGWS’s registration as a co-operative was an important milestone, as Dr Cowley explains:

‘It was all about proper governance. We wanted to protect everybody, we wanted to do everything right. We wanted to ensure that all the laws were adhered to and, most of all, we wanted to ensure that we had quality water.’

The sector would benefit immensely from the governance guidance of Séamus O’Donohoe and ICOS but, in Séamus’ opinion:

‘The energy and the commitment that local communities brought to the group water scheme was the key thing. What we (ICOS and NFGWS) were trying to do was set down rail tracks.’

The launch of a guidance document for the procurement of DBO contracts in 2003.

Early days

There was a job of work to do. Firstly, the extent of the sector needed to be determined, as explained by Catriona:

‘There were a lot of group water schemes that we weren’t even aware of. We had to establish who was there, who was on the ground and what was needed. We found group water scheme sizes, varying from two or three houses right up to 1,600 houses.

‘At the time it was snail mail, we’d send 100s of letters out to GWSs around the country. You still had to lick the stamps back then. There was 0.1 calories in every stamp!’

A European Court of Justice case loomed large over the Irish government at the time, and the partnership approach set out to address infrastructural issues through the Rural Water Programme and the Rural Water Monitoring Committee, both also established in 1998.

With the subsidy catering for operational needs, the new Rural Water Programme would provide the capital investment needed to bring about these much-needed improvements.
Jim Ganley puts it:

‘When you look at the enormity of the task and the size of the investment that was needed to bring rural water supplies up to scratch, it was a daunting prospect. It needed a particular focus. We needed a vehicle that would deliver this change.’

Time of transformation

The partnership approach between all stakeholders was integral to its implementation, as was the development of the Design, Build and Operate (DBO) bundling process. Construction quickly began on new treatment plants, many of which were made viable by the amalgamation of smaller GWSs into more sustainable entities.

Minister Martin Cullen at the official opening of Pollacat Springs GWS, in County Roscommon, in 2003. Pollacat Springs GWS was spawned from an amalgamation of three GWSs and was the first GWS to open as part of the DBO concept.

It was an extraordinarily busy time for the new Federation but GWSs would also need help regarding new operational and management demands. Seán Clerkin remarks:

‘We sought further funding to employ development officers to go out and work with the schemes — in terms of training, facilitation and encouraging good governance — and I’d say that became maybe 60% of NFGWS staff’s day-to-day work. To this day, I think that was the great success of the Federation.’

In the intervening 25 years, the sector has been completely transformed. Bacterial compliance on GWSs rose from 58% in 1998 (coliforms) to 96% in recent years (E. coli). Governance improvements have seen the number of GWSs registered as co-operatives rise from circa 100 in 1998 to some 333 co-ops by 2022. Coupled with the reliability offered by the DBO process, many GWSs have also invested in professional management to improve its service.

The current National Federation of Group Water Schemes board of directors (missing from photo: Jimmy Walsh and Aidan McNabola).

Great people

‘We met some wonderful people,’ says Catriona ‘It didn’t feel like work. How I’ve seen the organisation evolve has been wonderful.’

Every interviewee echoes her praise of the people involved in the sector. Dr Cowley remarks:

‘The great success of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes is that it brough everybody together all over rural Ireland. Every county was organised, every county had powerful federations, and it didn’t happen by chance. It was done by grit and guts and perseverance.

‘It is now one of the premier organisations in rural Ireland and going a great job. Government can continue to learn from us. We work in partnership. We have no agenda except to meet the needs of the people, which is to provide quality water, and we’ve managed to do that. I’m very proud to have been part of it.’

The full documentary will soon be available on the NFGWS YouTube channel.