'This is grief, this is loss, this is death': 'Wake' held for blue-green algae riddled Lough Neagh

Over 100 protestors have come together on the shores of Lough Neagh in over escalating concerns around toxic blue-green algae.

The vibrant cyanobacteria known as blue-green algae is something locals have been long warning about, but viral pictures of the lake - which appears as though it has been dyed for St Patrick's Day - have brought it into the public conscience.

The algal bloom is caused by a combination of excess nutrients from farming, sewage and wastewater overflows, and invasive zebra mussels.

It has forced some businesses to close, prevented swimmers from entering the water, and stopped dog-walkers from taking their usual routes.

This extraordinary problem, has prompted an environmental rally that was unusual.

Activists were styled as mourners, dressed in black, with flowers, sympathy messages and a coffin.

This dramatic display was an effort to bring attention to a crisis in the UK's largest lake, and the water mass which is the source of 40 per cent of NI's drinking water.

NI Water has insisted that tap-water originating from Lough Neagh is still safe to drink, while DAERA says it understands this "extremely serious" situation requires "urgent action", but activist say a wake-up call is needed.

"This is a wake. This is grief, this is loss, this is death, this is destruction, and we at Love our Lough decided to put on this event, hoping that it would serve as a wake-up call for the people of Lough Neagh," said organiser Louise Taylor.

Mick Hagan is a plumber, but he should be a fisherman.

He would be the 6th generation fishing on the lough, but he has now even stopped it recreationally because of the state of the water and the reduction in eels.

"We need an emergency task force to tackle this and it can't be next week, it can't be two months, it can't be two years, it has to be now," he said.

Cold-water swimming groups the Bluetits and the Antrim Chilly Dippers were out in force too, easy to spot in their DryRobes.

Patricia McKeown-Howe and Barbara McAuley started cold-water immersion during lockdown, and they feel lost as this new-found joy has been brought to an abrupt halt.

They opened up about how they loved getting into the water and feeling all their troubles wash away.

"Is this the end of the Antrim Chilly Dippers?" they asked.

Lough Neagh Partnership hopes to see a more joined up approach from government bodies going forward.

I spoke to Gerry Darby from the group.

The Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a statement in response to the protest, saying that "urgent action" is being taken in the face of the "extremely concerning" situation.

A DAERA spokesperson said: “The situation in Lough Neagh is extremely concerning and the department recognises how serious it is. The increase in blue green algae blooms is a result of excess nutrients from agricultural and wastewater systems, combined with climate change and the associated weather patterns. This has been exacerbated due to the presence of zebra mussels and the impact they have on the ecological balance in the Lough. 

“The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is fully committed to protecting our environment and working with partners and stakeholders to find short and long term solutions to the very complex and challenging issues evident in the increase in blue green algae.

“A range of urgent actions are underway in DAERA to consider how to deal with this issue in both the short and long term. The reality though is that the deterioration of the water quality in Lough Neagh and other waterways has occurred over many years and it will take time and considerable effort and investment to deliver the improvements that everyone wants to see. Everyone has to play their part to ensure that we do all in our power to protect our natural assets.” 

Meanwhile, NI Water has insisted that water coming from Lough Neagh through the treatment plants is still safe to use and drink as normal.

A spokesperson said the body's number one priority is "the quality and safety of your drinking water."

“We can assure our customers that the water supplied from all our Water Treatment Works, which includes water abstracted from Lough Neagh, is safe to drink and use as normal.

“On a daily basis, we monitor our raw water intakes from all sources, at our treatment works and at customer taps to ensure that drinking water supplied meets strict quality standards.

“NI Water has a robust testing and sampling system which sees over 120,000 samples lifted and analysed each year. Sampling and analysis are carried out 365 days per year. Samples are taken from customer homes, reservoirs and treatment plants.

“Drinking water supplied from the water treatment works which use Lough Neagh as their raw water sources, are designed with the potential for algae to be present and robust treatment processes are in place to manage this effectively.

“We increase the frequency of algae monitoring over the summer months when the risk for algae in the raw water would generally be higher.

“Increased levels of algae can cause an unusual taste and smell to water from your tap but does not pose a risk to health. The taste and smell can be earthy and/or musty. Therefore, while the water from your tap can be used in the normal way, we fully appreciate some customers might notice a difference in the taste and/or odour to their drinking water at this time.

“Sometimes filter jugs, coffee machines and filters can be problematic if they have not been regularly cleaned or the filter has not been replaced in line with manufacturer’s instructions. It is also advised to keep these appliances out of direct sunlight and in a cool place.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.