Put Conservation, Fairness and Investment at the Heart of Our Water System

Put Conservation, Fairness and Investment at the Heart of Our Water System

Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, former Minister for Communications, Energy & natural Resources

How did we end up here? We find ourselves in a situation where less than half of those billed by Irish Water have so far paid their bills and at least a quarter of the population say they will never pay. They are supported by half the political system who say they will abolish water charges and get rid of Irish Water if they are elected.

Just when it looked like the water issue was settling down, it is back on the agenda, with protesters blocking the gates of the Dáil and the members from both left and right saying they have lost faith in the State on this issue.  Abuse is being hurled from each side in a way that has contaminated our political debate.  It is not just our rivers, lakes and seas that have been polluted.

We are going back in time to the language of the land-wars and boycotts that characterised our war of independence, as if we were still fighting an external enemy. In truth, this is an issue of how we look after our own environment, which by definition is an issue of how we look after ourselves.

When you talk to people about the problem you do find some common ground.  There is an understanding that water and sewerage services have to be paid for and that investment has to increase.  People can see we have a problem whenever a boil water notice is put in place, or when water pressure in parts of Dublin dropped to a trickle or when a sick stomach can be traced back to a particular seaside swim.

However, there is still a real problem in getting a political commitment to spend on the pipes, sewers and treatment facilities we need. In clientelistic Irish politics, looking after the environment has never been high on the agenda. Those pipes are all hidden underground, Cryptosporidium cannot be seen as it comes out of the tap, opening a new sewerage centre is not the stuff of Ministerial dreams.  So out of sight is out of mind.  We have always reallocated spending on water quality to other more immediate and popular budget items.

Unfortunately, kicking the watering can down the road is no longer a viable option. The facts of the matter are clear. We live in a country where almost 50% of treated water is lost through leaks; where raw sewage is discharged in 44 urban locations; where we only have the capacity to treat 50% of the sludge produced by septic tanks and where 30% of private wells are polluted with E. coli. Moreover, climate change is likely to bring bigger winter floods in the West and summer droughts in the East, just as our capital finds itself without an adequate water supply.

It was never going to be easy to manage the increased investment we need at a time when the country was facing so many increased bills but the way the Government has gone about that difficult task has made matters worse.  They got it wrong even before they started in office. A deal was done before the election as part of Fine Gael’s NewEra proposal, allowing for the sale of Bord Gáis energy assets and at the same time a transfer of all water assets to the new gas and water holding company. The first thing they did in Government was to change the brief of the PWC consultancy report that was looking into new water supply management options. Without any public consultation or debate, they changed the terms of reference to make sure the creation of a single water utility along the lines of Irish Water was the inevitable recommendation. I don’t need to recount the litany of political mistakes that followed in the next three years but we all know that where we have ended up is not the right solution.

The flat rate charging system now in place neither raises the necessary funding nor gives any signal to support conservation of water supplies. Instead of a business where the ability to reduce costs and create efficiencies is independently assessed, we have an organisation which is regulated by political considerations rather than any economic or environmental logic. The Government says they will revise things again after 2017 but that conveniently puts the issue on the long finger in the year of an election. No one knows what the next government is going to do but one thing is certain.   The treatment of Irish water is going to be the hottest item in any Programme for Government negotiation, no matter who gets elected.

I don’t accept that the alternatives proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance or Sinn Féin provide a credible alternative. Where is the logic behind the argument that Ireland has a unique case for not monitoring and managing the wasteful use of what is a precious natural resource? Their arguments centre on various inequities in the overall tax system but they do nothing to address the environmental challenge we face.  

Sinn Féin were not in favour of a boycott, then rowed in with it. They say they would abolish Irish Water, but haven’t outlined how they would fund water services, or what new system they would put in place. Fianna Fáil similarly want a return to the old ways that left us with an archaic water infrastructure. Both parties are being outflanked by the Anti-Austerity Alliance who believe the ‘can’t pay – won’t pay’ campaign can be a re-run of the poll tax campaign that succeeded in bringing down Margaret Thatcher. The circumstances in our country are different. It is not credible to say that new spending on Irish water is “double-taxation” because, in reality, our tax revenues have never gone on water resources to the extent needed. The argument is first and foremost whether we want to spend the money, and only then can we properly come to the issue of how you raise it.

The Green Party/Comhaontas Glas proposes a radical overhaul of Irish Water which we hope can break the political stalemate that is leading to such division in our country. We need an overhaul that will address people’s concerns about double taxation, secure the required investment in our infrastructure, and put conservation at the heart of the debate, where it should be. A new Irish Water that’s fit for purpose would end the standoff and secure our water for future generations.

We propose a five-step overhaul that would provide a mediated solution.

* Put the Right to Water in our Constitution.
The first step to reforming Irish Water is ensuring that it remains publically owned, forever. This has been a cornerstone of the Right to Water campaign from the start.  The only way to ensure that Irish Water isn’t privatised in the future is to enshrine the public ownership of public water resources in the constitution. The Government have repeatedly used words like “clarity”, and “certainty” regarding changes to Irish Water. A referendum on public ownership of the utility would provide absolute, 100% certainty for the future. More importantly, it would recognise the value of our environment. Water is not a commodity to be traded. It is a precious natural resource and its unique importance as a public good should be recognised in law.

* Put conservation at the centre of a new charging system.
We propose that every citizen receive an ample free water allowance, higher than the current levels. Citizens would not be charged for this allowance. The majority of people use water responsibly, and shouldn’t have to pay for their typical daily use. Charges should be incurred for amounts above this level, which would still provide a real incentive for conservation. This incentive could be backed up with a conservation grant for domestic water harvesting equipment rather than the current €100 per household refund which provides no incentive to save.

The regulation of any charge would have to be done in a way which creates an incentive for the provider as well as the householder to support conservation. We need to create an incentive scheme whereby the water supply company gets more revenue the less water that their customers use. Examples exist in other countries of how this can work and, in any case, we will need to create a similar new utility model for both electricity and gas so that conservation of those energy resources also becomes the metric of success. 

* Provide investment via joint EU/Central exchequer funds along with a charge.
The third step deals with the inevitable questions raised by the second. If we don’t have the necessary investment coming from domestic water charges, how do we fund the critically needed investment without breaking the Eurozone fiscal compact rules? One solution would be for the Government to use the flexibility mechanisms that have been promised as part of the new ‘Juncker Investment Plan’ which allows certain joint European and national exchequer investments to be excluded from the general budgetary rules. Such investment will have to be productive and also meet other agreed European policy objectives. We will not be able to claim such flexibility if we proceed with a solution that has no charging mechanism but we can make the case for a change in the rules if we can show it is part of a strategy where we are starting to take our environmental responsibilities seriously.

* Make Irish Water a national billing organisation with regional infrastructure companies.
It would be difficult and expensive to return the management of our water and sewerage system back to the old local authority model. Rather than reversing all the changes of recent years and decommissioning the metering system that has been put in place we should use Irish Water as a central billing company. Infrastructure investment in water and waste management services could be organised around the same water catchment areas that are recognised in the EU Water Framework Directive. This would empower regional and local government and ensure we managed our land use and natural resources in a proper sustainable way. Irish Water already deploys its resources on a regional basis – managing them around the existing eight river basins makes sense. We have already shown how it can be done in the recent establishment of a similar regional structure as part of Inland Fisheries Ireland which manages fish stocks on our lakes and rivers.

* Put water quality at the centre of other national plans. It makes no sense to make a large investment in water quality only to see gains lost from other policy decisions. The plan to specialise Irish agriculture and land use narrowly on dairy presents a real threat in this regard. New Zealand followed a similar path and have had to make an expensive retreat as a consequence of the water pollution their agriculture policies caused.

Nor does it make sense for Minister Alan Kelly to be proposing a weakening in building regulations which could only repeat the mistakes of the past and see us having to retrofit expensive solutions to protect local ground water from badly build buildings.

Last, but not least, we have to ensure that there is a proper balance between investing in new water supplies that facilitate enterprise development and the protection measures that deal with pollution problems at the tail end of the factory pipe. The Department of Enterprise needs to understand that protecting our environment is, in the long run, going to be a necessary investment if we are going to promote Ireland as a clean and sustainable location for business.

In the end, this issue is an environmental one. We need to start seeing our connection and appreciation of nature as being an essential part of what we are and what we do as a country.  Put conservation, fairness and investment at the heart of our water system and Irish citizens will back it.

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