22nd September

Highly-charged debate on domestic water charges and metering

Since Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan announced in April that a new, independent State-owned company - Irish Water - would take over the provision and supply of water from the country’s 34 local authorities, he appears to be avoiding any further detailed involvement in the often highly-charged debate on domestic water charges and metering.

And apart from declaring early on that there would be no upfront charges for householders when the installation of water meters begins later this year, the minister now seems content to leave it to the Commission for Energy Regulation to devise a funding model.

It would seem therefore that the complex and often controversial challenges surrounding fair and equitable water governance might at last be overcome.

Far from it!

In fairness however after just over a year in office, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would appear to be addressing the wider issue of water service provision - which is more than any of its predecessors in government did in the past twenty.

The fear now is that with an eye to the next general election they will take a backseat, content to let Irish Water take the flak from an increasingly angry tax-paying electorate.

Minister Hogan needs to keep a dialogue going with the public, and through a public awareness campaign he must show where the money on water services is being spent, and why.

The abolition in 1996 of domestic water and sewerage charges by a government cynically looking for electoral advantage was inevitably popular.  The result however has been a chronic under-investment in services which has left us with a crumbling distribution network that loses at least 40% of its water en route from reservoir to household.

Worse still is that a generation has grown up in the meantime believing that unlike other utilities such as gas and electricity, which are charged on a pay-per-use basis, a sustainable water service should be paid for from general taxation.

How many of us ever consider why Ireland should be so fortunate to be the only OECD country whose citizens do not have pay for water use - despite the fact that usage here per head is amongst the highest in Europe?

During Dáil debates and media skirmishes that accompanied Minister Hogan’s announcement, the ‘elephant in the room’ is our obligation to the Water Framework Directive – and it’s here that Minister Hogan should kick-start his public dialogue.

By transposing the WFD into Irish law in 2000, Ireland committed itself to a legal requirement to carry out a far-reaching economic analysis within each of the River Basin Districts under its jurisdiction. Included in this is the obligation to apply the principle of recovering water service costs under the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

The exemption that Ireland applied for and was granted since then has effectively allowed successive governments - for purely selfish political self-interest - to long-finger the introduction of domestic water charges.

The WFD is the roadmap for water governance Europe-wide for the next generation. The truth is, when it comes to water, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

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