The Earth's Corr: The Northern Ireland Executive has failed Lough Neagh spectacularly

With a heatwave due Lough Neagh campaigners fear it will only get worse
-Credit: (Image: PSNI)


The Northern Ireland Executive has failed spectacularly to deliver for Lough Neagh before they head off on their summer holidays. We all know by now the party holding everyone else back is the DUP which won’t sign off on 17 strategies aimed at reducing pollution entering the waterways and lakes we ultimately get our drinking water from.

They say they care about the lough and the issues impacting their constituents - but I really wonder whether DUP voters around the loughshore felt heard on the issues impacting the very body of water so many rely on for livelihoods and water.

The fact the party lost three seats in the general election might give some insight into people’s thinking on whether they were delivering on the whole.

READ MORE: Stormont action plan to deal with Lough Neagh crisis must be signed off

Read more: DUP ministers holding back plan to 'fix' Lough Neagh

But in the absence of Executive (DUP) approval of the Lough Neagh report and 37-point action plan, DAERA has said it will get on with 20 strategies included in the report that don’t need the Executive nod.

They fall under a number of categories and cover everything from water quality monitoring outreach to farmers, initiatives to remove excess phosphorous from the environment through better use of slurry:

Education

1. Deliver Water Quality monitoring outreach events to farm businesses in the Lough Neagh catchment to build on the information provided by soil analysis and runoff risk mapping within the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS). To optimise nutrient application on the farm.

2. Provision of training in compliance and environmental performance to slurry spreading contractors. To reduce risk of runoff to watercourses.

3. Scope and implement a suite of water quality-based initiatives including farm sustainability training and advisory campaigns, ensuring that these incorporate actions to promote experiential learning.

4. Deliver a Lough Neagh Catchment wide awareness campaign on Education and Enforcement practices through a departmental mailshot to raise awareness.

Andrew Muir told the Assembly he would "be writing to the First and Deputy First Minister requesting the use of urgent procedure to approve the report and action plan"
Andrew Muir told the Assembly he would "be writing to the First and Deputy First Minister requesting the use of urgent procedure to approve the report and action plan" -Credit:NI Assembly

Incentivisation/Innovation/Investment

5. Launch a Small Business Research Initiative Phase 2 project to improve the Sustainable Utilisation of Livestock Slurry and develop demonstrator sites to process livestock manure/slurry. Removes excess phosphorus from the environment.

6. Establish and deliver a Livestock Dietary Emissions Challenge through the Defra-Led Dairy Demonstrator Project to formulate and test on farm livestock diets which reduce ammonia emissions, phosphorus losses and greenhouse gas in Dairy herds in Northern Ireland. Reduces phosphorus and nitrogen inputs.

7. Commence a Small Business Research Initiative to investigate feasible and affordable solutions to reduce Blue Green Algal blooms when they occur.

8. Scope the expansion of the Sustainable Catchment Programme into more Lough Neagh catchment areas. Reducing point and diffuse nutrient losses from agricultural sources. Scope the mandatory participation in the SCP within the FwN packages.

9. Deliver the Farming with Nature Package.

10. Continue Lough Neagh Environmental Farming Scheme Group Project. To ensure an Environmental Management Plan for each participating farm.

Regulation

11. Complete the statutory review of the Nutrients Action Programme, consult on proposals within the updated NAP and introduce revised NAP Regulations. Reduce the nutrient losses to water from agricultural sources.

12. Establish a DAERA group to develop a proposed response to the excess nutrient problem that will significantly reduce the adverse environmental consequences. Engage and fully consult with stakeholders regarding a new regulatory framework for the processing of slurry to reduce land spreading of excess phosphorus, resulting in renewable energy production and recycling/reuse of organic nutrients. Reduce phosphorus loading to land.

13. Review of 3rd cycle River Basin Management Plan and programme of measures as overall water quality improvement strategy for DAERA. Improving water quality.

Enforcement

14. Increased activity focused in areas of highest risk including cumulative breaches and informed by scientific evidence with a view to having a focussed enforcement taskforce. Improving water quality.

15. The provision of additional Water Quality Inspectors to enhance responses to reports of water pollution. Improving water quality.

16. Establish an enforcement project team to explore and fully consult on enforcement methods including fixed penalty notices for non-compliance. Deterrent to reduce pollution incidents.

17. Scope the provision of a dedicated team for those catchments of poorest water quality. Initially focused on the Lough Neagh catchment. This team, separate from NIEA, will work alongside key stakeholders to educate and support farm businesses in steps that can be taken to improve water quality, allowing space and time to implement these improvements and following up with appropriate enforcement action.

Science and Governance

18. Within the DAERA Postgraduate Studentship Scheme, have a focus on PhDs on nature-based solutions for Lough Neagh. To increase knowledge and understanding.

19. Commence a scientific review of the environmental impact of sand extraction at Lough Neagh. Phase 1 Report (Review of existing evidence).

20. Implement the InterAgency Blue-Green Algae monitoring protocol. Response to incidents and public health advice.

Those all seem to be very sensible places to start in relation to tackling the decades of pollution Northern Ireland rivers, lakes and seas have faced. But what about punishment for repeat polluters in the courts?

We know farmers, business owners and even NI Water have walked away from pollution related court proceedings over pollution with minor fines compared to the damage they have caused.

We also know Andrew Muir wants to tackle this issue with the Department of Justice, but will need Executive support to change the law around fines and sentences for polluters.

You’d think everyone who said they care about the issues facing Lough Neagh would be behind such a change - but a common sense approach never seems to reign in this dysfunctional society of ours.

Lough Neagh protest at Stormont
Lough Neagh Partnership Gerry Darby points out blue-green algae at Ballyronan

Instead, even our environment and the Minister finally trying to do something to make it better is being held to ransom by a party still ruling the whole country by refusing to do anything that doesn’t suit them.

We see it in United Nations Climate conferences every year when everyone has to agree to the final outcome and what you end up with is a watered down and weak deal that never tackles the issues at the heart of our climate problem.

Then, as much as in Northern Ireland, you are left with a scenario where very little progress is made by blockers holding everyone else back just because they can.

While some might be celebrating the changing landscape of Northern Ireland politics - we still have a problem when it comes to getting things done.

Maybe Alliance are right in their repeated calls for a system change - so the majority can pass the changes we need to see.

Campaigners had five demands - number one being an independent environment agency
Lough Neagh protest at Stormont -Credit:Justin Kernoghan

It could be a gamechanger in terms of environmental improvements as well as funding to cut our bills and make our homes warmer.

While I’m not one to quote what’s the Bible - it was written a very long time ago when society was very different to what it is now. I do think at times you have to meet people where they are and talk about what they believe in.

In Northern Ireland, some might think Earth is only 6,000 years old - but at the rate some of those believers are blocking change for the better - humans might not last another 600 years.

So I’ll leave them with Job 12:7-10: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

Blue-green algae at Reas Wood which feeds into Lough Neagh
Campaigners had five demands - number one being an independent environment agency -Credit:Justin Kernoghan

Do the faithful who doubt climate and its impact on nature not think this Lord would be very upset with them if they didn’t do everything they can to protect what the Bible says he made for us?

Maybe share that thought with a believer who denies the now overwhelming climate science that fossil fuels are causing catastrophic damage to the Earth - it might help shift their view a little on the value of nature to all of us and how we need to do everything in our power to protect it.

As we can see from the Caribbean this week, even rich people on their holidays won’t escape what climate change is delivering right now.

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