Interview: Niall Gleeson, chief executive, Uisce Éireann
Irish Water is embracing a name change – to Uisce Éireann – and is about to embark on a multibillion-euro investment programme, including addressing once and for all some legacy issues that it inherited when established in 2014.
This includes ending raw sewage discharges by 2025; ensuring the State’s largest wastewater treat plant in Ringsend, Dublin, has sufficient capacity and is environmentally compliant; and bringing water from the Shannon to the eastern region to solve its acute shortage of supplies and risky over-reliance on a single source – the river Liffey.
It’s not simply a matter of getting big infrastructural jobs done within a reasonable time, and as committed. Chief executive Niall Gleeson readily acknowledges that the terrible uncertainty of climate change already under way is testing the resilience of the supply network and treatment facilities – and he knows the ferocity and frequency of extreme weather events are likely to increase.
And then there is increased demand, as well as the awareness that a reliable water system will be critical to future foreign direct investment.
You would go out and sell something, and we’d come back and try to figure out how we were actually going to deliver it
Gleeson, a mechanical engineer, who graduated from Bolton Street (now TU Dublin) in 1988, has had a career path immersed in infrastructure. It led to him working with big private sector utilities and the State.
His big early move was when he joined General Electric. “They used to recruit Irish guys to go off to work as field engineers. That was a great training ground. You were often in the middle of nowhere with no phones and no internet – it didn’t exist then. You became very resilient.”
The job took him to many places including Shenzhen, which was a small fishing village before being designated as China’s first special economic zone. It is now a city of 12 million people.
His wife Karen was in the airline business, so their lifestyle of constant relocations was doable. But that changed after the couple had their first child. “You go from a couple of holdalls to a 40-foot container when you’re dragging a kid with you,” he recalls.
Attention focused back on Ireland where he got a job with Shanahan Engineering which honed his entrepreneurial skills. “You would go out and sell something, and we’d come back and try to figure out how we were actually going to deliver it,” he says.
Gleeson later worked with Alstom, leading to big Irish contracts such as the provision of Luas trams and ESB power plants, where the growing requirement for environmental sustainability was forcing itself into the picture.
As a country, we need to understand that the larger projects, like Metro North [and] our water supply project from the Shannon, need to go ahead. Sometimes they don’t benefit everyone, but they benefit the majority
Gleeson was working on a contract in Hong Kong when the Irish Water role arose. He relished the opportunity, which coincided with an inflection point for the company. He was appointed in January 2022 as it was preparing to split with parent Ervia, to become an independent publicly-owned and regulated business.
Moving to a State company was not a cultural shock, as he had been dealing big State players. “I knew how the machinery worked. I was kinda ready for it.” The language changes from Ebitda and profits to cost and what are you delivering for the State but every organisation has to have a strong commercial sense, he says.
Uisce Éireann’s task is compounded by having to address “a history of neglect” over 60 to 80 years. That has meant annual investment in capital projects multiplying from €300 million in 2014 to €1.1 billion in 2022, and it will continue to grow.
While there has been enormous progress, Gleeson says, a huge amount of work is still required in bringing a “national approach” – ensuring more efficient plants, catering for a growing population and, critically, prioritising investment in the right places.
In real terms, it means removing 45 of 50 raw sewage discharge points into the sea or lakes by the end of 2025 – perhaps the biggest lingering issue and one which sees the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) constantly on its case. Only half of Ireland’s urban sewage was treated to EU environmental standards in 2021; well below the EU average of 90 per cent.
“Since 2014, 65 per cent of raw sewage discharges by volume have been eliminated through targeted investment in new sewerage infrastructure where none existed previously, and we are on target to eliminate nearly all of the remainder by 2025,” Gleeson notes.
It has reduced leakage rates across the network from almost 46 per cent in 2018 to 38 per cent by end of 2021 and is aiming for a national leakage rate of 25 per cent nationally and below 20 per cent in Dublin by 2030, which is “not bad by European standards”. The agency fixes more than 1,500 leaks a month across a network of 63,000 kilometres of pipes.
Gleeson acknowledges the capital’s awful leakage problems, and he recognises the public’s frustration when so much effort is put into treatment plants. It’s a tricky area requiring much effort and massive costs. Uisce Éireann will spend €2 billion between now and 2030 under this heading. It is concentrated in built-up areas where works inevitably mean traffic disruption – as indicated by current work on a trunk main in Sandymount.
At least innovation deploying technology that “works inside the pipes” will soon be more prevalent, he predicts.
On infrastructure delivery, he says: “Right now, it’s taking us between five to seven years to deliver something from inception to the water running out. I think that should be three or four years.”
The biggest challenges are around planning, with the approval process including judicial reviews. “I do think in a democracy everyone should have a chance to have their say. It just needs to be a bit quicker ... in that three to four-year timeline.”
Gleeson insists planning “is not a completely broken system”. Having processed 500 planning applications, Uisce Éireann was very involved in saying what should be in reforms of the planning system currently working their way through the legislative process, he says
Working with local authorities providing small pumping stations, for instance, is not a problem. “The larger projects are where we struggle,” says Gleeson. “As a country, we need to understand that the larger projects, like Metro North [and] our water supply project from the Shannon, need to go ahead and sometimes they don’t benefit everyone but they benefit the majority.”
The Water Supply Project – Eastern and Midlands Region, in other words the Shannon pipeline, will take water from Parteen Basin and pipe it to near Dublin. Gleeson describes it as a multigenerational project benefiting the entire eastern seaboard, feeding a corridor through the midlands and allowing Dublin’s existing plants to serve areas north and south of the city.
“It’s a very sustainable solution, when [at present] that water 30 kilometres downstream runs into the sea,” he says.
Once built, the pipeline will be covered up and there will be no lasting impact on the environment, he explains. An ambitious timeline for delivery by early 2030s is required to ensure resilience to climate change – especially drought – and to cater for population growth.
Already, the utility is engaging with 90 per cent of landowners and farmers, doing boreholes and site tests. Gleeson accepts a judicial review is inevitable, so they are trying to ensure what emerges is “reasonable”. The much-delayed Greater Dublin Drainage Project provides a salutary lesson. There were 18 challenges and only one was upheld, yet it required a lot of effort to defend.
The Shannon to Dublin scheme is set to be the State’s biggest infrastructural project to date, but Gleeson declines to confirm the cost, or to respond to speculation that it will be more than the new children’s hospital.
The Liffey supplies 80 per cent of drinking water for the greater Dublin area, he notes. “If anything happened to it, we would be in trouble.” Few other capital cities of similar size would be so reliant on a single source, he says.
The €500 million Ringsend project comes with greater certainty; it will have capacity for 2.1 million population equivalent by year end, and for 2.4 million people in 2025. It is an immense logistical challenge as there is only a small footprint available on the site, and the plant continues to treat wastewater for a 1.98 million population equivalent while the upgrade work takes place.
Expanded treatment capacity is facilitated through stacking of treatment tanks deploying Nereda aerobic granular sludge technology provided by the Dutch company Royal HaskoningDHV. A new phosphorous-recovery process is also being installed to protect nutrient-sensitive Dublin Bay, and its sludge treatment facilities are expanding.
An upgraded combined heat and power plant will generate 50 per cent of the energy requirements on site, he confirms, by maximising collection of methane created from anaerobic decomposition of organic material during water treatment.
You were often in the middle of nowhere with no phones and no internet – it didn’t exist then. You became very resilient
On the poor environmental state of Dublin Bay, Gleeson points to the city’s Victorian sewage infrastructure which means sewage and storm drains combine and can overflow at times of heavy rainfall into overflow tanks – and occasionally discharge into the bay. It was a good design for its time, but it includes the added strain of run-off from roads going into storm drains feeding into the Dodder and Liffey and out to sea.
Pollution of Sandymount and Merrion Strands is not an Irish Water issue, he stresses, highlighting the broader impact of one and half million people living around the bay.
“I swim in Dublin Bay ... so I’m very conscious of it. The investment in Ringsend will help. But there might be 20 days a year when we wouldn’t advise people to swim in Dublin Bay ... I’m not sure that is a terrible compromise.”
Gleeson swims in Blackrock or Seapoint most of the year and so, he says, has “a strong interest in keeping the bay safe”.
He accepts the EPA has a job to do in highlighting the pressures on rivers, lakes and estuaries, and their continuing decline – including the utility’s performance on issues within its remit. The deterioration “is upsetting”, he says, but adds that Uisce Éireann inherited historical underinvestment. It has got better at predicting when projects will be delivered to help address the problem, he says.
Gleeson highlights, however, the challenge of having to serve several masters – such as complying with EU standards, the Government’s housing programme and enabling sustainable growth, not to mention coping with heavier rainfall and more runoff from land due to global warming.
Their efforts are concentrated on upgrading treatment plants and managing them more efficiently, he says, whether it’s working with farmers on the right time to spread slurry or using advanced telemetry to raise alarms at plants tied into its national operations management centre. Almost 100 of the main plants, serving 85 per cent of the population, are now online.
Before the utility’s establishment, urban wastewater was the second most dominant pressure on receiving waters. It is now the fourth “and we expect that, by 2027, it will be down to seventh”, Gleeson says. Agriculture, hydromorphology and forestry currently exert most pressure on water bodies.
He is a convert to “a co-operative approach” in river basin management rather than simply building bigger and strong treatment plants, noting that “you’ve got to work upstream with everybody”.
There might be 20 days a year when we wouldn’t advise people to swim in Dublin Bay ... I’m not sure that is a terrible compromise
Within the organisation, Gleeson recognises the need to innovate including in its supply chains. Complementing this is a need for a workforce (currently 1,300 people) with the right skills mix, while ensuring Uisce Éireann is seen as an attractive place to work. Three thousand people in local authority water services have the option of transferring to the utility.
The programme for government commits to a referendum on water ownership demanded by unions fearful of what has happened to public water and public sanitation elsewhere, notably in Britain. Gleeson says he would not be advocating for any change as networks – such as water, electricity and gas – are in his view better in public ownership, given the level of investment required.
Uisce Éireann has set a blueprint on how it will manage water resources over the next 25 years under the National Water Resources Plan. On the supply side, it’s about making resources climate resilient, he says. If heavy rainfall becomes more prevalent, they will have to look at further design enhancements in wastewater treatment, requiring massive investment in storm tanks and storage capacity.
Gleeson is mindful of drought that hit the east coast in 2018 and 2020, when “Dublin became pretty tight”. Without the Shannon option, it will inevitably be further challenged, he admits – the west is predicted to get wetter and the east to get drier.
For now, Uisce Éireann is trying to get to a steady place in getting facilities up to today’s EU standards on drinking water and wastewater discharge even as both become even more demanding.
“It’s a bit like the Forth Bridge. We will finish painting it and we’ll have to start all over again. It’s going to be continuous investment in the region of €1 billion a year on wastewater infrastructure ad infinitum.”
Name: Niall Gleeson
Position: Chief executive of Uisce Éireann, commonly known as Irish Water
Family: Married to Karen. They have three grown-up children and live in Co Dublin
Hobbies: Year-round swimming in Dublin Bay; boating on the Shannon
Something you might expect: He is strongly in favour of keeping Uisce Éireann in State ownership – privatisation in the UK has not been a recipe for efficiency and pristine water. The issue is due to be put to a referendum here.
Something that might surprise: With a boat on the river Shannon, he “won’t be draining the Shannon any time soon”.