Opinion: Lough Neagh ecocide indicts misgovernance

The ecological disaster in Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, demonstrates what happens when the economic growth of agriculture is prioritised over environmental protection


  • Professor John Barry

03 May 2024

Blue green algae cyanobacteria on water

Since last summer we have witnessed in real time the devastation of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Ireland and the UK. It's an ecological disaster from which ecosystems, livelihoods and wildlife may take decades to recover – if they recover at all.

A recent report from the Rivers Trust found that not one stretch of river in Northern Ireland has managed to meet 'good' overall status, while it stated that Lough Neagh was an 'ecological disaster'.

Algal bloom threatens wildlife and community

In many ways, Lough Neagh's now toxic waters epitomise the problems of post-agreement Northern Ireland. As has been widely reported, unprecedented blue-green algal blooms pose an acute threat to its wildlife and status as an important biodiverse habitat. However, it is also a public health crisis, given that the lough provides 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water.

It is nothing short of devastating for the people who live and work in and around it, and those who enjoy being there. Whether through the livelihoods its fisheries support or the opportunity it provides as a place to exercise, relax or connect with nature and one another, Lough Neagh is vital for many people. Yet tragically, in its current state, it is now a hazard to health and well-being.

This is not due to misfortune or an environmental accident: it is the result of decades of mismanagement, including a lack of investment and regulatory oversight, government and powerful agri-food interests promoting an unsustainable beef and dairy sector, and relegating environmental protection to the bottom of the political to-do list.

As Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland director James Orr says 'The lough isn't just dying, it's been killed, it's been killed by polluters'.

The disaster can be viewed as the inevitable consequence of a regional economy based on the exploitation of nature and political neglect, which has transformed places of ecological importance and outstanding natural beauty into sacrifice zones.

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Economy and misgovernance contribute to ecocide

Ultimately, it is symptomatic of the destructive force and inherent unsustainability of the region's post-agreement political economy, which prioritises growth in ways that encourage the exploitation of nature. 

The most obvious case is the Northern Ireland Executive's Going for growth agricultural strategy which has incentivised a large beef and dairy sector that is unsustainable in terms of its negative impacts on the environment and water courses in particular.

A Northern Ireland Environment Agency report on the blue-green algae – called cyanobacteria – in Lough Neagh found that 60% of the nutrients causing the bloom came from farming, 25% from utility Northern Ireland Water, and the rest from domestic sewerage tanks. 

Only a public inquiry or a judicial review can establish the causes of the crisis. However, it is not unreasonable to think that it's a toxic combination of environmental misgovernance by Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and Environment Agency for example, and nitrogen, slurry and phosphate run-off from our industrial-chemical farming system.

This has been supercharged by initiatives such as the Going for growth strategy, a lack of adequate and safe sewerage treatment – for which Northern Ireland Water is responsible – and climate change that warmed the water to its highest levels ever of 17.4°C in June last year. All of this has contributed to the ecocide of the lough.

That misgovernance is one of the causes of the crisis has even been accepted by the recently appointed minister of agriculture, environment and rural affairs Andrew Muir, of the Alliance Party, who talked of his 'sense of shame' about what had happened in Lough Neagh. He went on to say that the problem had been 'bubbling below the surface … over decades and it occurred because of environmental mismanagement'.

This statement is welcome, and can be viewed as a direct criticism of previous minsters such as Edwin Poots of the Democratic Unionist Party, who many viewed as siding with large agricultural interests promoted by the Ulster Farmers' Union rather than protecting the environment.

For example, Poots oversaw the passage of a less ambitious Climate Change (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 than the one proposed by assembly member Clare Bailey of the Green Party, mainly to protect the large beef and dairy sector from the transformations needed for Northern Irish agriculture to make its fair share of emissions reductions, given that it accounts for 27% of the region's greenhouse gases. This makes its greenhouse gas emissions profile unique in the UK, but similar to the Republic of Ireland, where 38% of emissions are from agriculture.

'A report on blue-green algae in Lough Neagh found that 60% of the nutrients causing the bloom came from farming, 25% from utility Northern Ireland Water, and the rest from domestic sewerage tanks'

Departmental set-up pits agriculture against environment

There are two issues to highlight here in relation to misgovernance. The first is the lack of an independent environmental protection agency, which both the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Farmers' Union argued against. The second is in the make-up and title of DAERA, as the responsible department.

The fact that Northern Ireland has a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs means that there will inevitably be tensions – which takes priority when agriculture and environment clash? The experience since 1998 has been that the environment comes off worse.

Meanwhile, the Environment Agency has been weak, not just in terms of its failures to prevent the ecocide of Lough Neagh but also with regard to other major environmental disasters. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is its failure to prevent Europe's largest illegal toxic dump at Mobuoy, the clean-up of which is estimated to cost up to £700m.

Muir has established a cross-department working group to explore a Lough Neagh recovery plan, which may consider taking the lough into public ownership; the Earl of Shaftesbury currently owns the lough bed. The plan may also involve a greater management role for the Lough Neagh Partnership, which is responsible for the sustainable development of the lough. But the test of whether the minister will solve the crisis is in dealing with the agricultural causes of the problem.

Climate impacts exacerbated by political neglect

Climate change and ecological shifts are an important part of the picture as well. Rising temperatures and an invasive mussel species that clears the water, making its depths more easily penetrated by sunlight, have made it more susceptible to algal blooms.

Along with the recently published State of nature 2023 report, which identified Northern Ireland as one of the world's most nature-depleted regions as well as the increasingly tangible, destructive instability of weather systems resulting from climate breakdown, this is indicative of the costs – environmental, social and economic – of failing to take action.

However, a long history of systemic negligence and political dysfunction has exacerbated these problems, allowing the lough to be treated as an open sewer for human and animal waste from septic tanks and agricultural run-off.

Worse still, government policies have actively, if indirectly, encouraged this sacrificial treatment of natural landscapes. In an economy where maximising profits is key to remaining competitive, intensive land use, low levels of investment in infrastructure and neglecting to implement protective or preventative measures are all encouraged as ways to cut costs.

With 25,000 farms across Northern Ireland, the environmental and public health emergency we face with Lough Neagh should come as no surprise.

'A long history of systemic negligence and political dysfunction has exacerbated these problems, allowing the lough to be treated as an open sewer'

Environmental disaster prompts breakdown of trust

Environmentalists have long been campaigning for an independent environmental protection agency. Yet as of now, neither do we have such a body nor is anyone being held accountable for ensuring that the region's rivers, air and land are safe from pollution and that the health of our environment, wildlife and people are protected.

The disaster at the lough is an obvious case of a failure to maintain ecological and human health. It is a public health and animal health issue. Government failure to act is in turn leading more and more people to question the health of our democracy and political system.

Concerned citizens are understandably cynical about the public bodies charged with protecting the environment as well as political parties and government agencies, particularly when it comes to the lough. Indeed, many have little faith in the state's ability to do the right thing. The crisis at Lough Neagh demonstrates what happens when the health of the economy is prioritised above that of the people and planet.

There is widespread anger and a sense that public services in Northern Ireland are falling apart, as Belfast Telegraph journalist Sam McBride has recently written, with many sharing his view that the restoration of a functioning executive in Stormont may make matters worse.

Sadly, whether it's a neglect of governance that has turned an ecological jewel into an open sewer, or the lack of government action to reduce energy poverty, these issues reveal just how broken this place is.

Perhaps the one bright spot in this ecological disaster story is the way citizens and communities have mobilised since last summer to raise the alarm and challenge government and civil servants to do their job. That includes fulfilling the first duty of all government: to protect the public and the environment on which our lives and livelihoods depend.

John Barry is professor of green political economy at Queen's University Belfast and co-chair of Belfast Climate Commission

Contact John: Email | LinkedIn

Related competencies include: Environmental management, Sustainability, Waste management

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