Water supply and sanitation in the Republic of Ireland

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Ireland: Water and Sanitation
Flag of Ireland.svg
Access to improved sanitation 99% [1]
Continuity of supply (%) High[citation needed]
Average urban water use 160 litres/capita/day[2]
Average urban domestic water and sewer bill for 20m3 Zero[needs update]
Customer metering Only for non-residential customers (2014)
Non-revenue water 30% (in Dublin, 1996)
47% (outside Dublin, 2000)[needs update]
Share of collected wastewater treated 93% (2011)[3]
Annual investment in water supply and sanitation €71/capita (2013)[4]
Sources of financing of capital and operating costs Exchequer (85%), non-domestic tariffs (15%)[citation needed]
National water and sanitation company Irish Water will take over responsibilities from 34 Local Authorities in 2015
Water and sanitation regulator Commission for Energy Regulation
Responsibility for policy setting Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government
Sector law None[clarification needed]
Number of service providers 34 City and County Councils and 1,129 Group Water Schemes, being transferred to Irish Water

Water supply and sanitation services in Ireland are governed primarily by the Water Services Acts of 2007 to 2014 and regulated by the Commission for Energy Regulation. Until 2015 the relevant legislation provided for the provision of water and wastewater services by local authorities in Ireland, with domestic usage funded indirectly through central taxation (including motor taxation), and non-domestic usage funded via local authority rates. From 2015, the legislation provided for the setup of a utility company, Irish Water, which would be responsible for providing water and wastewater services, and funded through direct billing.[5][6] The transition between these models, and certain aspects of operation of the new company, caused controversy in its initial period of operation.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

In general in Ireland, water resources are abundant and 83% of drinking water comes from surface water. However, wastage levels are high, with some sources noting that 800 million litres are lost to leaks each day,[13] and usage running slightly higher than in some other European countries, at 160 liter per capita per day.[2] The quality of water from the public mains is usually quite high, with 98.7% of supplies were free from E. coli.[citation needed] However, the microbiological quality of some rural private group water schemes led to Ireland being cited in 2002 by the European Court of Justice for failing to abide by EU drinking water guidelines.[14]

For wastewater treatment, 82% of wastewater collected in sewers receives at least secondary treatment,[3] and 1.6 billion litres of water are treated each day nationally; 540 million litres of this is in the wider Dublin area.[citation needed] The low density and spatial distribution of population has resulted in an extensive network of water distribution compared to many other countries – with over 25,000 km of pipes in total.[citation needed]

Water resources and use[edit]

Water resources are abundant in Ireland, with 82% of drinking water supplies in Ireland sourced from surface water (i.e. rivers and lakes) and 18% coming from groundwater - 10.5% from groundwater and 7.6% from springs. This high dependence on surface water is above the EU average.[15] Only about 2% of Ireland's abundant water resources are abstracted for human use. Unaccounted for water constitutes 41% of total water supply, followed by supply for domestic demand (39%), and non-domestic demand (20%).[16]

The River Lee is a source of water supply for the city of Cork

80% of the Irish population is served by 939 public water supplies. The remaining 20% is served by 643 public group water schemes(serving 2.3% of the population), 486 private group water schemes (serving 4.7%), 1,429 small private supplies (serving 0.7%) and private wells that are exempt from the regulations (serving 12.3%).[17]

In the absence of domestic tariffs and meters, domestic water use is higher than in other European countries, with daily domestic consumption of water by customer at approximately 160 litres in Ireland.[2] This compares to 150 litres in the UK (where approximately 40% of households are metered), 121 litres in Germany and 114 litres in Denmark (all users are metered in both countries).[18] At 141m³ per inhabitant, Ireland has the third highest freshwater abstraction rate per inhabitant of 26 EU countries, ranked behind only Italy and Croatia.[19]

Water shortages that are possibly related to increases in demand, high levels of leakage and changing precipitation patterns due to climate change have left some larger urban areas– particularly Dublin – struggling to meet demand during prolonged dry spells.[20] With a surplus supply of 1% at any given time, the greater Dublin area faces water shortages in the coming 10 years. Furthermore, studies have shown that as the city's population grows close to 2 million there will be a demand for an extra 300 million litres of water per day, compared to 540 million litres per day today.

A 2006 feasibility study for the Greater Dublin water supply urges the immediate development of a new water source, pointing out that it will be needed no later than 2015-2016 to avert water rationing and the curtailment of economic growth. It also argues there is no time to waste because it will take at least a decade to build this proposed new source.[21]

Dublin City Council has produced proposals for water to be abstracted from Lough Derg on the Shannon river to supply Dublin’s water needs, with raw water stored in the midlands as part of the process, but this project must be progressed through statutory planning processes. Also, regional variations in rainfall and population distribution give much less favourable conditions in the east of the country compared to other areas.[22]

Service quality[edit]

The quality of water from the public mains is usually quite high and compliant with EU drinking water standards. However, the poor microbiological quality of rural private group water schemes and groundwater continue to challenge authorities responsible for drinking water.[17][23]

The city of Galway, supplied with water by the River Corrib, was the scene of an outbreak of waterborne cryptosporidiosis in 2007.

The quality of drinking water in Ireland was brought forcefully to the attention of the Irish public with the outbreak of waterborne cryptosporidiosis in Galway during 2007, which caused illness in over 240 people, and led to the imposition of a boil water notice in Galway for a period of 5 months during the peak tourist season. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while "many have taken the quality of drinking water in Ireland for granted in the past, this can no longer be the case".[24]

On 14 November 2002, Ireland was condemned by the European Court of Justice over the microbiological contamination of hundreds of public and private water supplies. The EU's Drinking Water Directive requires an absence of E. coli in drinking water supplies in order to protect human health.[14] In 2007 EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas gave the Irish government a final warning before a fine would be issued: "I am concerned that, more than four years after a court ruling, and despite substantial Government investments, a significant number of local authority and private water supplies still show a presence of E. coli." [25]

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 report on drinking water reported that drinking water quality in public water supplies was continuing to improve. Chemical standard compliance stands at 99.5%. 1.3% of supplies were found to have had E.coli, a reduction of 86% since 2005. 10.2% of private group supplies had E.coli, down from 11.6% in 2010. 7.7% of small private supplies were found to have E.coli exceedences, down from 7.4% in 2010.[17]

In October and November, 2013, severe difficulties were encountered with the water supply to Dublin. The Ballymore Eustace water treatment works processes water from its main supply, the Poulaphouca reservoir. During October, the water characteristics changed, in a way that has yet to be described in detail.[26] The effect was that particles in the water would not settle out satisfactorily, leaving tap water cloudy. As a result, the supply to the Dublin was restricted for two days, with supplies withdrawn from 8pm until 7am.[27]

Wastewater treatment[edit]

The proportion of waste water discharges where secondary treatment facilities have been provided has increased significantly from 26% between 1998-1999 to 93%. This is due predominantly to the new wastewater treatment plants at Ringsend (Dublin) (which, at the time, was believed to be the largest construction of a new water treatment facility in Europe serving 1.5million people [28]), Cork City, Limerick City, Galway City and Dundalk. The provision of secondary treatment facilities with nutrient reduction continues to increase.

According to a 2011 EPA report,[17] 11 of 174 agglomerations covered by the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive did not have the required level of wastewater treatment, but are expected to have secondary treatment by 2015 at the latest. 70% of agglomerations (larger urban areas in Ireland) were compliant with the requirements of the Directive in 2011, an improvement on 63% compliance in 2010and 57% in 2009.

  • 51% achieved all the effluent quality and sampling standards
  • 26% did not achieve the effluent standards
  • 19% could not achieve the standards due to lack of secondary treatment
  • 4% did not achieve the standards due solely to insufficient effluent sampling

The report found that:

  • 259 areas received secondary treatment
  • 179 areas received secondary treatment and nutrient reduction
  • 69 areas received primary treatment
  • 37 areas received no treatment or preliminary treatment

Septic tanks and other domestic wastewater treatment systems[edit]

Whilst 66% of households are connected to public sewerage schemes, with the majority in urban areas, 27.5% of households used an individual septic tank, while 3% adopted other individual sewerage systems.[29]

In October 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled against Ireland regarding septic tanks and other on-site wastewater treatment systems. It deemed Ireland non-compliant with Articles 4 and 8 of the Waste Directive in relation to domestic wastewaters disposed of in the countryside. Ireland was fined €2 million and the Court imposed daily fines of €12,000 for each day of delay in achieving compliance. Central to ending the case against Ireland was establishing a national inspection plan for domestic wastewater treatment systems. In 2012, the government passed the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012, which provided for a new inspection system and requires owners of septic tanks and other on-site treatment systems to register their systems with their local authority. A new registration and inspection regime was introduced in June 2012. System owners must register their system’s details and systems may be inspected. By July 2013, almost 90% of owners of premises connected with such systems had registered their systems. The government has announced details of a grant scheme for remedial work on a system.

Responsibility for water supply and sanitation[edit]

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is responsible for water and sanitation policy sector within the Irish government. Enforcement of drinking water quality regulations is the responsibility of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


Drinking Water quality. Water services authorities – local authorities in the case of public supplies – are responsible for the monitoring of drinking water. Local authorities are responsible for testing the quality of water, in conjunction with the Local Health Office (HSE). Under the 2007 Drinking Water Regulations, the EPA has supervisory powers for public water supplies. It can direct a water services authority to improve the management or quality of a public water supply. The EPA audits water services authorities in respect of their role in the production of drinking water. Where it finds any deficiencies, it makes recommendations as to what action the water services authority needs to take to remedy any deficiency. Likewise, water services authorities have a supervisory role in relation to group water schemes and private supplies, and must notify the EPA of drinking water non-compliances or risks to public health from a public water supply.

Economic regulation. Unlike the United Kingdom, there is currently no economic regulator for water supply and sanitation in Ireland. Under the 2013 Water Services Act, the Commission for Energy Regulation is assigned powers to advise the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the development of a regulatory framework for water services. Economic regulation of water services is due to commence after enactment of the forthcoming Water Services (Amendment) No. 2 Bill 2013.

Service provision[edit]

See also Local government in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin's Water History

Water services are the responsibility of local authorities, which receive a subsidy from central government. Local authorities, comprising 5 city councils and 29 county councils, are water services authorities.

Upper reservoir of Bohernabreena Waterworks, Glenasmole

Dublin Region Every day approximately 540 million litres of high quality drinking water is produced and supplied to over 1.44 million customers in the Dublin Region. This corresponds to a per capita water production of 378 litres per day before losses and including commercial uses. Dublin City Council's Water Services Division is responsible for supplying 70% of this water and the balance is being provided by Fingal County Council. Water is collected from Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow for treatment at the City Council's three water treatment plants at Ballymore Eustace, Roundwood and Ballyboden and at the Fingal County Council plant at Leixlip. It is then distributed to customers in Dublin City and in the South Dublin, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal, Kildare and Wicklow County Council areas through a network of service reservoirs and 8,000 km of pipes of which 2,700 km are the responsibility of Dublin City Council.

Group water schemes. Group water schemes are found in rural areas and are outside the scope of the urban public mains systems administered by local authorities. A group scheme is a scheme servicing water or wastewater services to two or more households not connected to the public water supply and/or wastewater collection systems. Group schemes are private or public, depending on whether their water is supplied from the public mains or a private source. All group schemes connected to public supplies are fitted with a water meter so the local authority can monitor the amount of water used by the group. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government provides funding, via local authorities, for establishing authorised group schemes as well as a range of capital and operational supports to group water schemes, subject to local authority approval and certain limits.The EPA 2011 report on drinking water quality in Ireland indicates that there are some 1,129 group water schemes, serving 7% of the public, covered by the Drinking Water Regulations because they serve more than 50 people or supply a commercial operation. 643 are public group schemes and 486 are private group water schemes.

The National Federation of Group Water Schemes was established to represent the interests of members of group water schemes. It provides advisory,training, developmental and other services to scheme members.[30]

Financial aspects and efficiency[edit]

Although there are no domestic water charges in Ireland, the country has undertaken significant investments in water and sanitation. In 2011, water services cost €1.2 billion (capital and operational spending), with 85% of the cost funded by the Exchequer.[citation needed] These investments were financed by the national government with support from the European Union. Despite these substantial investments, water leakage (41% of total water) remains much higher than in England and Wales (approximately 25%) or in most other EU countries.

In 2013, €326 million was allocated by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for infrastructural spending on water,[4] corresponding to €71 per capita. An increase in infrastructural investment is needed, however, with a 2011 assessment by PwC on transferring responsibility for water services from a local authority to a national utility assuming in its analysis that €600 million of capital investment is needed annually (excluding the cost of the current metering programme and increased efficiencies in infrastructural spending).


In July 2014 the Commission for Energy Regulation announced that the standard metered rate for water and wastewater will include 30m³ per year of free basic water, after which €4.88/m³ including taxes will be charged. Rates will be capped until March 2015 at an annual fixed rate of €176 plus €102 for every additional adult living in a household.[31]

Currently all water charges for domestic use in urban areas in Ireland are paid for by general taxation. Domestic use is defined as drinking, washing, heating and sanitation. There are approximately 1.35 million domestic water connections served by public water supplies. Members of rural group water schemes usually pay for domestic water and wastewater services. As part of a Programme of Assistance agreed with the EC-ECB-IMF ‘troika’ in November 2010, the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government committed to re-introducing domestic water charges in 2012/2013. This followed a commitment made in the Renewed Programme for Government, published in October 2009, to introduce charges based on a system of a free allowance per household, with charges on usage above the allowance. A month before the government’s agreement with the troika,the administration’s ‘National Recovery Plan 2010-2014’ stated that metering would form part of charges and be introduced by 2014. Domestic water charges, a requirement under the EC-ECB-IMF’s Programme of Assistance, will be introduced in Quarter 4 2014, with households receiving their first bills in Quarter 1 2015. Bills will be issued for usage in arrears, similar to those for electricity or gas.

Households are expected to receive a free allowance, with charges based on metered usage above the free allowance. Environment Minister Phil Hogan has said households unmetered at the time of charges introduction will be charged on an assessed basis (e.g. dwelling type,number of people in a house etc.).[32]

Non-domestic water charges - either flat rate or metered - are levied on businesses, schools, hospitals and other non-domestic users. There are about 150,000 non-domestic connections, which constitute approximately 20% of total public water supply.

Non-domestic customers pay a combined charge for water and wastewater. Local authorities set the rates. In 2013, the national average water rate stood at €1.13 per m³. The national average wastewater rate was €1.19 per m³. €2.37 per m³ is the average combined rate. Significant variation exists in the local authorities’ rates, however, with Kildare County Council having a combined rate of €1.59 per m³, in contrast with €3.04 per m³ charged by Wicklow County Council. The cost of water for industrial users has remained relatively static since 2007.[33]


Under the EU’s Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive 1991, local authorities are obliged to construct secondary and tertiary water treatment plants by 2008. New wastewater treatment plants were built in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway between 2000 and 2011, generating additional capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 3.96 million. Over the same period, drinking water treatment capacity has been increased by an amount sufficient to meet the needs of a population equivalent of 1.4 million people. The compliance level under the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive increased from 25% to 93%. Under the government’s ‘Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2012-2016’ blueprint, €1.58 billion in capital investment is to be allocated for water services between 2012-2016, with €326 million now earmarked for 2013.[4] The majority of the funding will be channelled through the 2010-2013 Water Services Investment Programme, which is targeting reduction in leakage levels; improvements in drinking water standards; capacity and security of supply (including planning a new long-term source for the Greater Dublin Area) and wastewater discharges. Infrastructure under the Greater Dublin Strategic Drainage Strategy is also promised.

Financing and Subsidies[edit]

Funding for maintaining and improving the water supply and sanitation infrastructure comes from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government.[30] Indirectly, substantial funding historically came from the European Union through its European Regional Development Fund. In addition, local authorities levy planning contributions mainly for small capital improvements. Group scheme members are entitled to a subsidy from their local authority. After the abolition of domestic water charges in 1997, it was intended that this scheme would extend those benefits to households supplied by group water schemes. The amount of subsidy is 100% of the qualifying expenditure, meaning that all running costs of the scheme are covered by the subsidy as long as they do not exceed the subsidy limit. The amount is around €50 per house per year. Group water schemes are also entitled to technical and grant assistance for any upgrading works that may need to be carried out.

Efficiency and levels of water leakage[edit]

Leakage levels in Ireland currently stand at 41%, with considerable variation between local authorities, in part explained by corrosion of antiquated pipes. As part of the National Water Study, conducted in 2000, a water audit was undertaken for 91 water schemes outside Dublin to establish levels of non-revenue water (NRW). The report noted that the poor quality of data and the low level of consumer metering limited the reliability of their figures. They found an average level of NRW of 47%, corresponding to 34 litres/connection/hour and 29 m3/km/day.[34] This compares to only 10.1 m3/km/day in England, Scotland 21.3 m3/km/day, Netherlands 1.6 m3/km/day and Denmark 1.7 m3/km/day.[35]

History since 1977[edit]

The history of water supply in Ireland since the mid-1970s is dominated by controversies about whether there should be charges for domestic water supply. Domestic water charges were first abolished in 1977, only to be reintroduced by some local authorities following legislation in 1983 authorising them to do so.Domestic water charges were then prohibited by legislation in 1997 following an anti-water charges campaign in 1994-97. This resulted in a legal prohibition of domestic water charges at national level.

See also Economic history of the Republic of Ireland, Taxation in the Republic of Ireland

The first abolition of domestic water charges[edit]

Domestic rates, which financed the cost of water services were abolished for the first time by a Fianna Fáil government, following the 1977 general election. In the same period, an increase took place in Income Tax and Value Added Tax. The revenue from these increases, and from borrowing which was very high during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was to be used to fund the local authorities, which had previously relied on domestic rates for their funding. From then on the central government paid a "rate support grant" to Local Authorities.[36]

However, in 1983 the then Fine Gael-Labour government decided to cut this grant and passed legislation to allow councils to levy service charges. This was perceived by some as "double taxation", since the previously increased taxes remained at their high levels. Opponents also argued that rates were unrelated to consumption and that there were insufficient provisions to protect the poor.

The Dublin fight against water charges 1994-1997[edit]

Many councils decided to introduce water charges, while others such as Dublin initially decided against introducing them. After water charges were introduced in Dublin in 1994, an anti-water charges campaign was initiated and included demonstrations and a boycott of the new charges.[37] The city threatened to cut the water supply to those who did not pay. After lengthy court battles, some non-paying users were cut off, but the non-payment of water charges continued.[36] On 19 December 1996, on the eve of general elections, the Minister for the Environment Brendan Howlin from the Labour Party of the Rainbow Government of Fine GaelLabour PartyDemocratic Left announced that the water charge was going to be replaced by a new system in which motor tax collected in each area would be the source for local council funding.

The second abolition of domestic water charges[edit]

Domestic water charges in Ireland were thus prohibited under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997, passed in May 1997 shortly before the June 1997 general elections in which Fine Gael lost to Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern. However, given popular discontent the new government chose not to pursue domestic water charges. Instead, it embarked on extensive consultations which resulted in the 1998 water services pricing policy. The policy banned cross-subsidy of domestic services from non-domestic charges. For non-domestic users, the policy required the recovery of average operational and marginal capital costs of water services from these users. It also foresaw the metering of all non-domestic users by 2006. Domestic operational costs were to be paid for through a local government fund, and capital costs were to be financed through the capital programme of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.[38]

As a result, according to one critical observer, "a generation of people is growing up without realizing that water is expensive to deliver". According to a water industry source, Irish households use more water than UK metered equivalents. Investment costs are rising as water is accessed from further afield and from water bodies that are potentially sensitive fish habitats.[39]

The Water Services Bill 2003[edit]

The Water Services Bill 2003 was presented to the Oireachtas by then Environment Minister, Martin Cullen of Fianna Fáil. The bill was designed to consolidate Ireland's existing body of 15 different enactments into a single act, and to transpose EU water legislation. Cullen called it "the first root and branch consolidation and modernisation of water services law for more than 120 years since the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878", adding that "like the Victorian sewers which we have upgraded or replaced, this Bill replaces Victorian legislation with a new modern legal framework."[40] The bill covered the management of water supply and sanitation, not wider environmental issues surrounding water resources.

In September 2004 Cullen's successor, Environment Minister Dick Roche, also of Fianna Fáil, defended the proposed bill in Dáil Eireann. There he was faced with charges that the bill was a "Trojan horse to introduce privatisation and domestic water charges". The Opposition also criticized the lack of a statutory right of access to water in the bill, lack of public participation in the review of proposed strategic plans, calling the bill "a thinly disguised attempt to privatise the water supply" as well as "a formula to get around the 1997 Act and re-introduce water charges by another name."[2] Ultimately, the bill was not passed.

According to one commentator, if the Water Services Bill, 2003, had been passed earlier and implemented effectively, people would not now have had to boil their drinking water in Galway in 2007 because of an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis.[41]

2007 Water Services Act[edit]

In May 2007, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition enacted the Water Services Act 2007. As well as updating and consolidating existing legislation, the Act also:

  • introduced a licensing system to regulate group water schemes
  • assigned the EPA with responsibility for supervision of sanitary authority water supplies
  • strengthened administrative arrangements for planning the delivery of water services at national and local level
  • placed duties of care on water services users regarding water conservation; prevention of risk to public health and the environment; and the protection of collection and distribution networks.

Fianna Fáil-Green Party government (2007-2011) policy[edit]

In 2008, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, Green Party leader and former Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1994–1995 during the water charges conflict, said that domestic water charges will not be introduced during the lifetime of the government. He also said water shortages will be a key issue that Ireland will have to grapple with in the future. The Minister said there were other ways of tackling potential shortages which have already left some larger urban areas – particularly Dublin – struggling to meet demand during prolonged dry spells. The main focus of government policy would be to reduce the leakages from main water supply pipes.[42]

In October 2009, however, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party agreed on a Renewed Programme for Government, which pledged to introduce domestic water charges based on a system of a free allowance per household, with charges only on usage in excess of the allowance. In October 2010, the administration’s ‘National Recovery Plan 2010-2014’ pledged that metering would form part of charges. Metering was to be introduced by 2014. As part of the EC-ECB-IMF Programme of Assistance to Ireland, agreed in November 2010, the Coalition agreed to the introduction of domestic water charges in 2012/2013.

Fine Gael-Labour government policy (since 2011)[edit]

In March 2011, the new Fine Gael-Labour government’s Programme for Government (2011-2016) contained commitments to a water policy similar to the previous government.[43]

In January 2012, the Minister of Environment, Phil Hogan, announced a six-week consultation on a planned fundamental reform of the water sector. Following that, a metered domestic water charges would be introduced and a new public utility, Irish Water, would be established and take over responsibilities for drinking and waste water services from the local authorities. Independent economic regulation, through the Commission for Energy Regulation, would oversee the new utility’s running costs, infrastructural investment plans and the design and level of domestic and non-domestic water charges.

In July 2013, Irish Water was legally established and began a national metering programme, incorporating 1,600 jobs pre-existing during the three and a half year programme. The company will initially install meters for approximately 1.05 million households. Domestic water charges are scheduled to commence in October 2014, with households receiving their first bills in Quarter 1 2015, with bills paid for usage in arrears.

From 1 January 2014, Irish Water will become the national water services authority, assuming all responsibilities for water services from local authorities except for those relating to certain rural water services and inspections of wastewater treatment systems. Ireland’s 34 local authorities will continue to provide some drinking and waste water services on behalf of Irish Water through a service level agreement. The first agreement is due to last for 12 years (2014-2025). Legislation providing for the transfer of functions, water charges and the economic regulation of water is due to be published and enacted by the end of 2013.


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External links[edit]