Féidhlim Harty’s interest in the environment began one day when he was windsurfing in Cork Harbour. After seeing the scum from a sewage pipe entering the water in front of his eyes, he pondered on the possibility of cleaning up local waterways.
Earning a degree in environmental science and technology in Sligo, FH Wetland Systems located in Ennis was developed in 1996 to provide a design, consultancy and planting service for constructed wetlands and to increase public awareness of constructed wetlands, wetland habitats and water quality.
Since arriving in Clare from his home county of Cork, Féidhlim has identified three locations where sewage discharge runs directly into a water source and believes that the crux of the issue is improvements in the wastewater infrastructure in Ireland.
“Water and wastewater treatment holds a large carbon footprint. If you pour dirty water into clean water, there are a number of things that happen. Firstly, the habitat is degraded for fish, whereby they can’t see the food they are looking for. Nutrient levels go up and you get nutrification, causing algal blooms. This is a particular problem for lakes in Clare in recent years. Another element would be pathogens, from diseases and bacteria. Most bacteria are fine, but the ones you flush down the toilet quite often aren’t,” he stated.
Waterless or compost toilets are one method of bypassing this. These dry toilet systems refrain from using extra materials and collect human waste below the bowl and turn it into a compostable substance. This material can be used on soil to increase its biodiversity. Whilst not the most popular option for homeowners, Féidhlim admitted, it was the only choice over 200 years ago. Waterborne diseases were non-existent for this reason, he added. “Climate change isn’t going to be solved by simply tweaking around the edges. We have an urgent need to move to where all our agriculture is regenerative. Compost toilets all fit into this.”
Many of the jobs undertaken by Féidhlim exist outside the realm of career guidance literature. The replenishing and building of wetlands systems across Ireland is one such ingredient. Wetlands, falling under the category of waterway rewilding, are built for both water quality and biodiversity. Féidhlim is currently working on the existing Westfields Wetlands on the Condell Road in Limerick, along with the City Council. Management of visitors and resident’s overall satisfaction with the wetland is one particular element. He recalled one of the first conferences for constructed wetland systems which took place in 1993 as a result of the poor condition of Cork Harbour. Lapping up this information at the time, whilst studying in college, was the push required for Féidhlim to set up his own business constructing wetlands systems.
“Over the last 30 years in Ireland, the very polluted streams have gotten cleaner, but all the pristine rivers have almost gone,” he highlighted. In 1980, Ireland had 13 streams of reference or very high quality. We have now dipped below one per cent in the last five years. This is down to wastewater and agriculture, he asserted.
He stated: “The two are deeply intertwined. How do we grow our food and how do we dispose of it after we have eaten it? Sewage and agriculture are the two biggest causes of poor water quality in Ireland.” When harvesting, a certain amount of soil runs into the water. No till methods of agriculture are one way to mitigate this.” Current projections show that Ireland and England have only about 50 harvests left. Féidhlim highlighted that the Garden of Eden, otherwise known as the Mediterranean Basin, is now essentially a desert. This is a direct result of over farming. “If you look at us as a culture, we are a desert making species. No till methods are best for the soil and carbon,” he added.
His latest book Towards Zero Waste, which looks at the reduction of household waste on an individual level, is available from www.wetlandsystems.ie or in Meanwell Whole Foods in Ennis.