For years vital Irish public services were consistently starved of funding at a time when taxes were being cut for electoral reasons. This is unfortunate but it has consequences which cannot be denied, whatever the ideology of the (non-)payer.
Keeping water prices at an artificially low level leads to a vicious cycle of underfunded service-providers, insufficient investment, collapsing infrastructure and deteriorating services, according to the European Environment Agency. If this sounds bleak, that’s because it is – cheap or free water has been tried before. It doesn’t work.
Irish Water’s five-year business plan proposes to spend €5.5 billion by 2021 on national priority schemes, on fixing leaks, on improving drinking water quality and on reducing pollution through sewage outfalls. Indeed it says that €13bn needs to be invested over the next 10-15 years. A flickering insight into what this means is that despite dominating the political discourse and its angst for several years, only €110m has been collected over the last two years. Diligent payers are in the lurch. Social Democrat TD, Stephen Donnelly, was on the mark when he suggested recently that: “Anyone who’s paying out €160 is essentially being asked to go out into their front garden and set fire to the money”.
One of the problems is that Irish Water was so badly thought through. Phil Hogan, the minister, rammed the Bill for it through in three hours, after the opposition walked out.
Of course consultancy and PR charges were scandalously inflated, metering seemed disproportionately expensive, the underlying principle of the polluter paying was undermined by the setting of standard charges and a misnamed conservation rebate was applied to the bemusement of all.
The problem is homegrown. There is no infirmity in the EU regime which we purport to be implementing. Under the EU water framework directive the aim of water pricing is to “provide adequate incentives for users to use water resource efficiently”. “Social, environmental and economic effects” can shape these price levels; what is required from user groups is an “adequate contribution”.
Of course one of the reasons for forming a commercial company was that it would be able to borrow without the loan registering in the now-EU-constrained national debt. This was a logistical imperative in itself and never implied that increasingly unfashionable privatisation was the covert agenda.
In a country where referendums on for example property rights and protection of national resources are long overdue calls for a referendum enshrining Water alone as a resource which can never be privatised are little but cynical populism.
The longer water charges are suspended, as a wily public reserves its rights during the party-political maneuverings, the greater the overall cost to households. This is because eroding the incentive to save water raises consumption and therefore demands more pre-treatment, pumping, post-treatment, elevating the cost which must be borne by someone.
Charging works. In the Czech Republic, following charging reforms in 1990, household water consumption fell by 40%, from 171 litres per person per day to 103 litres a day, in the subsequent 12 years. Denmark, which extended volume-based charging in 1993, had much the same experience.
In Ireland, losses to leakage are 49pc, almost double the 28pc in Northern Ireland where there are charges. Figures from Eurostat released in November 2015 suggest the average person in Ireland accounts for 400 litres of water use a day (146,000 litres a year), some five times higher than in Belgium. 1% of households use 22% of water, 7% of houses uses 6 times the national average of water and one house in Galway notoriously used the water allocation expected for 325 houses.
Until 2013, water was the responsibility of 34 local authorities.
The Republic has 856 water-treatment plants, Northern Ireland gets by with 24. 600 of our treatment plants are earmarked for closure, but the process is slow and expensive.
Operating costs, expressed both in terms of population and kilometres of network, are almost double those at Northern Ireland Water. Meanwhile for example the Vartry tunnel (1860) in Wicklow, a 4km tunnel bringing drinking water to 335,135 people in County Wicklow and County Dublin needs to be replaced. A planning application has been submitted for a new tunnel. Meanwhile Dublin is vulnerable. Elsewhere, more than one-in-ten public supplies are inadequate, with, for example, thirty Kerry plants requiring attention.
But there are problems with more than just supply and wastage.
The pollution record caused primarily by insufficient funding is little short of calamitous. 30% of our 13,200km (8202 miles) of rivers and streams are polluted.
In general, while Ireland treads water (charges), standards are getting increasingly stringent under the Water Framework Directive.
Moreover as of 2012 less than 50% of lakes and transitional and coastal waters met EU standards for a ‘good’ or ‘high’ rating under the Bathing Water Directive.
Furthermore the EPA’s Urban Waste Water Report 2014 found waste-water discharges contributed to (indictable) “poor water quality” at seven of Ireland’s bathing spots.
Discharges from Youghal, Clifden and Galway city contributed to poor quality bathing waters at Youghal Front Strand, Clifden beach and Ballyloughane beach respectively. The same was true at South Beach, Rush, Co Dublin; Ardmore Beach, Co Waterford; Lough Ennel, Co Westmeath; and Duncannon Beach, Co Wexford.
A recent Prime Time highlighted raw untreated sewage being pumped into the sea in the case of Rush, an expanding town of 9,000 people. Along much of our coast, semi-treated sewage is discharged through what appear to be streams. Children mistake these for attractive play areas. In Co Kerry alone, there are at least eight vulnerable beaches. E.coli risk will not materialise every year, and programmes to monitor and close beaches are in place. In fact, raw sewage is being discharged into 45 rivers, lakes and coastal areas around the State, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said.
In 2013, there were 704 reported cases of verotoxigenic E.coli, a harmful bacterium. Some 5% to 8% of those affected suffered serious kidney complications. One in 20 of those died. Water-borne E.coli in Ireland is 50-60% higher than the next-worst EU states.
Lead piping too is a scandal. Present in the homes of 400,000 people, solving it will require collaboration between Irish Water and households.
380,000 Irish Water subscribers – around 9% – typically in peat-heavy areas where the peaty component mixes with chlorine, are drinking water that is infected with potentially carcinogenic Trihalomethanes (THMs). A sheepish EPA spokesperson on the Prime Time programme admitted that it has received medical advice that THMs pose a “long-term” threat to health.
The key is to deal with the problems facing low-income households and the problems facing our water supply as separate issues. While the average price paid per household is already one of the lowest in the EU, a social tariff could be added to reduce the cost for the most hard-pressed households by perhaps €50-€100. The allocation and management of social tariffs could be delivered through the Department of Social Protection. Such an approach would also mirror best practice in the rest of Europe. The alternatives: lower rates or the removal of charges altogether would remove the incentive to save water.
The choice remains clear. If water pricing is jettisoned, consumption would creep back up and savings would fail to materialise. On average, households would need to pay more. Alternatively, a failure to collect additional taxation and invest this in water would prompt an increase in the problems now being tackled.
Any successful strategy to reduce costs for households must be based on evidence, on international experience, and on principle. Only after that can we afford to nod to the manifest domestic political sensitivites.
Because in the end, one way or another, unless the polluter pays, the polluted pay. James Nix is director of Green Budget Europe and former director of An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland.