The Water Supply Project – Eastern and Midlands Region (WSP), more colloquially known as the Shannon Pipeline, is said to be targeting a planning submission in 2019. With a projected cost of €1.3 billion, the scheme will aim to remedy the water supply shortages in the Dublin area by drawing water from the River Shannon in the west of the country. The pipeline will run for approximately 170km, drawing water from the Parteen Basin in County Tipperary and transporting it to Peamount Reservoir, in west County Dublin, where it would be distributed across the Greater Dublin area.
This will be one of the single biggest infrastructure projects undertaken in the short history of our state. The works to lay the pipeline will carve a tract through the land that will be up to 50m wide in some places. The pipe, which will have a diameter of approximately 2,000mm, will be surgically implanted into the landscape and the wound cauterised afterwards. The scar, however, will likely be visible for quite some time.
The issue of water supply is not a uniquely modern problem, nor is the diversion of water over great distances a uniquely modern solution. School children in Ireland can explain, sometimes in detail, the use of aqueducts to supply densely populated Ancient Rome with water from the mountains. During the Industrial Revolution, the British landscape was altered rapidly by railways and canals; these elements are nowadays considered common backdrop elements of a traditional English vista.
Despite this historic precedent set by our European neighbours, our relationship with infrastructure in Ireland is a difficult one. For example, we will decry the condition of our country’s road network and simultaneously lament the impact of any expansion of said network on our green fields. We hold our landscape dear, convincing ourselves it is naturally occuring and unspoilt, when it is in fact the product of generations upon generations of agricultural industry, which is, in a way, our proto-infrastructure.
Along with effects on a landscape aesthetic, efforts to conceal the pipe below ground will in fact limit the use of the land above it. It may prevent excavations and the laying of foundations in these areas or prevent the growing of certain crops, thereby reducing the versatility of the ground below which it sits. While water pipes are often below ground to protect them from frost and sabotage, our general strategy of concealing infrastructure at great cost, is at times doing more harm than good.
Should our engineering achievements not be celebrated? Would it not be fitting also for the public to have a visual reminder of the lengths undertaken to provide them with modern comforts and conveniences? The presence of infrastructure can also be an opportunity, providing gravitational nodes for new life.
Consider an urban example, the Westway dual carriageway in London. It becomes an elevated flyover as it crosses the areas of Ladbroke Grove and Paddington. An imposing concrete structure looms over the yellowstock terraces below. While structural supports for the road resulted in considerable demolition at street level, the city as an organism adapted and healed around these. And almost as though a gardner had pruned parts of the city, cutting back to allow fresh shoots to grow, new life developed below the Westway. Everything from halting sites to recording studios and artists communes, public spaces, playgrounds and parking garages.
Such is the presence of the Westway in the psyche of Londoners, that it often appears in art and fiction. Seminal Britpop group Blur, for example, recorded a song entitled Under the Westway which references life above and below the overpass. Infrastructure, no matter how brutal, can worm its way into the affections of the people.
The Shannon Pipeline will have the most pronounced presence (whether above or below ground) in rural areas. Residents in these townlands will likely not benefit from the pipeline. Infrastructure should pay more heed to the places it passes through rather than the places it serves. British designer Sadie Morgan said of the UK’s HS2 rail project: “If the success of the project is down to the stations, that’s all wrong.” These communities should be able to derive some use from the pipe, otherwise it becomes like a motorway passing through without an on-ramp.
Perhaps the Shannon Pipeline, were it deemed to be the only solution to the water supply question, should be seen as an opportunity. If we choose not to bury the pipe and pretend it isn’t there, it has the potential to become a place where the public could interact with the inner workings of their country. With architectural input the pipeline could act as a piece of experiential engineering, an educational tool bearing the underlying lesson that our comfortable life comes at a certain cost. One liklihood is that the future outcome, much like water, will take the path of least resistance.