On Christmas Day last year, when families were busy preparing dinner, the dreaded call arrived at around 1pm — another boil water notice.
For 9,500 people in East Cork, it meant no drinking water, after heavy rainfall compromised the water treatment process.
The boil water notice lasted for six months.
In Ireland, more than 500,000 people are served by substandard water supplies.
The rural villages of Whitegate and Aghada sit on the edge of Cork Harbour, and in recent years have been subject to near-constant boil water notices, according to residents.
“We usually found our children had a tummy bug or two and then all of a sudden there was a boil water notice the following day,” said one local man out walking his dog near the beach in Whitegate.
In newsagents nearby, many can be seen leaving with drums of water. Another boil water notice was issued for the area on Saturday, again after days of heavy rainfall.
“Everyone’s buying water,” said Kathleen Carr. “You just don’t know if the water’s okay or not.”
Ms Carr has been buying water for about four years, around the time when boil water notices began in the area.
“I have a son with special needs, so we were constantly buying water,” she said.
“We were conscious washing him in the bath and stuff like that. It’s ridiculous. One time they’re [Irish Water] saying it’s okay and the next time they’re saying it’s not.”
A boil water notice in the area ran from Christmas Day last year through to the summer, and although Irish Water says the water is drinkable, the community has lost confidence in the system.
Julie Dwyer installed a €1,000 water filter but still doesn’t trust the tap water.
After moving to the area three years ago, Julie Dwyer learned to live with “continuous” boil water notices but soon got fed up with buying and boiling water.
“About a year ago we actually decided to get a water filter put into our house which cost €1,000,” the mother of two said.
“We could have got a cheaper one, but we wanted to make sure it was giving us clean drinking water.
“Luckily we’re in a position where we can do that, a lot of households can’t. Other parts of the country don’t have to do it so why should we have to down here?” she said.
“We don’t drink the tap water now anyway because I wouldn’t trust it.”
For Ciarán Martin, he’s been buying water most of the time for four years but has taken particular caution after his wife fell ill two years ago.
“She was pretty sick,” he said.
“We buy about 20 litres per week. The biggest pain is carrying it to the car.”
Siobhán Cunningham said the cost of buying water adds up.
“It does add to your shopping bill, certainly with the cost-of-living increase, that isn’t easy.”
Shane Russell, chairman of the Whitegate Residents Association, said locals feel the methods of communicating these notices should be looked at amid concern from some people that the boil water notices come too late and people usually find out through social media.
“Social media is a good thing in some ways, but you shouldn’t depend on it really,” he said. “Not everybody uses Facebook.”
Mr Russell has welcomed a commitment from Irish Water to find a permanent solution to boil water notices, but he urged the utility company to make progress “as quickly as is possible”.
As well as concerns around the quality of drinking water, Whitegate and Aghada are among the areas in Ireland that continue to discharge raw sewage into the environment, remaining far behind European standards.
A report from the Environmental Protection Agency has shown that every day 7.5m litres of raw sewage – enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools – is pouring into Irish seas and rivers every day, 16 years after EU deadlines passed to meet treatment standards.
Some 32 towns and villages discharge untreated sewage into rivers and seas as they remain unconnected to wastewater treatment plants. This figure has been reduced by 18 since 2014 when Irish Water took responsibility for the sewage system from local authorities.
Irish Water plans to cease raw sewage discharges in 19 areas by the end of 2024, 11 more in 2025, and the final two by 2027.
For locals of Whitegate and Aghada, this can’t come soon enough.
Local man Don Hourihan said he feels “desperate” that raw sewage continues to be released into the harbour, claiming the pollution has depleted fish stocks.
“I used to fish in the harbour 50 years ago,” he said.
Works are underway to connect sewage systems in Whitegate and Aghada to a new treatment plant before releasing into the sea at White Bay Beach.
Mr Russell said the discharge of raw sewage is “completely unacceptable given the wonderful harbour we all live beside”.
“This project has been spoken about for a long time and it is great to finally see it underway in the area,” he said.
Irish Water expects to spend €1.1bn in capital investment this year and €1.2bn next year, and recently said most of the water quality issues arise from plants that predate the last 10 years when it became in charge of them.
At an Oireachtas committee last month, Tom Ryan, director at the EPA’s office of evidence and assessment, told the committee “it is essential that urgent action is taken” to improve river basin ecosystems that are failing to meet the legally binding water quality objectives and “prevent further deterioration”.
The EPA warned Ireland may be subject to legal action by the EU over potential failures to meet requirements for water safety.
As Irish Water continues to invest in fixing leaky pipes, sewage systems and water treatment plants inherited from local authorities, communities such as Whitegate and Aghada wait for the day when they feel confident to drink from the taps and swim at their local beach.