Friday 29 March 2019

On being heard about Water

When I started at The Institute I was told off to teach Water Chemistry to our 4th Year Environmental Scientists.  On other days in those weeks I was teaching Human Physiology, for which my only qualification was that "I have a body". My quals for the 4th Year course were even slighter but I gave myself grinds and learnt a lot about ice, nitrates, BOD, COD, EPA, stone-fly larvae, parametric values, cryptosporidium and the cost of milk. After 4 years of my running water, a real water chemist came in from DCU and I reluctantly handed over the course and all my notes to him.  On Tuesday, he sent out a calling-all-cars e-mail to staff and students asking us to participate in a Focus Group on Water Quality in Ireland. It was organised by Celsius, a think-tank in the DCU Dept Comms.

Meeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I replied. It wasn't that we were offered free-parking and food for giving up yesterday evening from 1800-2130hrs; it wasn't even the €40 One4All shopping voucher; or that we don't have a telly; or that The Beloved was off site that evening. Although what's not to like about getting paid [tax free] minimum wage for for doing something different? The sandwiches were kinda terrible but the tea was hot and I had a great time. Only 8 other people from the four counties CW KK KE & WW, seemed to agree with my cost-benefit analysis. Three of us were professional [water] scientists; there were three students from The Institute; and there were three really interesting interested parties from The Public. It is perhaps instructive that the three students were all New Irish - originally from Congo, Canada and Poland. That's why we should celebrate a more diverse society: they want to contribute, they bring new ways of seeing.

I sat beside a bloke who works for a different branch of the people who organised the Public Consultation on the River Basin Management Plan RBMP which I attended in February.  We had a get-up-and-chat break half-way through the session, and I raised an eyebrow to him to say "This is how they do research in the humanities". Because the opinions of 9 self-selected people is not what we would call data. But actually getting 11 people [+2 facilitators from Celsius] round a table is quite goldiloxian for focusing discussion and letting everyone be heard. They softened us up started us off with a round table "introduce yourself and give us one positive memory of water" - all this being captured on video for later transcription and analysis - I shared my Duncannon dam story . . . because remembering Hugh MacDiarmid Holding a glass of pure water up in 1974 would be toooo pretentious. From there our Focus Group was led up and down and round the houses: asking us to opinionise on the quality of our own domestic water supply; bottled water; water safety; Ireland's water; water testing; The Man. Each idea was captured by nine post-its on a sheet of flip-chart: the position was data. Are you . . .
not at all confident
quite confident
the sun will rise tomorrow confident
. . . that bottled water is safe. As each positioned post-it carried our name, you could imagine doing some cross-tabulation on the responses by the same folk to different questions. But really, nine punters? Is that even vaguely reproducible? And, as I've asked before about other issuescui bono - who benefits? Who thinks it is worth $40 x 9 + room hire, tea & sandwiches = ~€500 to obtain such wet data?

But I learned some interesting and worrying facts:

  • when a citizen witnessed, recorded and reported a gross raw sewage discharge into the River Slaney nobody was prosecuted and nobody was even really interested [please go away we have work to do
  • that a bottlecapful of glyphosate = Roundup will put 30km of river over its parametric value
  • that a field in S Co Carlow has been under winter wheat for the last 7 consecutive years and has been sprayed with herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, slugicides, pelleted fertiliser . . . 14 times in the last 12 months.
  • that the outfall from  the Glanbia cheese and yoghurt factory in Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny has a BOD [biological oxygen demand] [bloboprev] as great as the City of Cork - I hinted at the cost of milk in my first paragraph.
And I should really read The Garden Awakening by Wexford's Own Mary Reynolds.

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