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Friday 26 May 2017

Only improved quality and conservation will prove this deal is the right one

Housing Minister Simon Coveney visiting the new wastewater treatment plant at Shanbally in Co Cork last week. Photo: Provision
Housing Minister Simon Coveney visiting the new wastewater treatment plant at Shanbally in Co Cork last week. Photo: Provision
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

The success of the water deal will not be measured on the political victories or otherwise claimed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or the left-wing parties, but what the state of the network will be in five years' time.

THE success of the water deal will not be measured on the political victories or otherwise claimed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or the left-wing parties, but what the state of the network will be in five years' time.

Will raw sewage continue to be discharged into bathing waters? Will leakage rates be tackled? Will new drinking and wastewater treatment plants be built, and operated to the highest standards?

And crucially, will Irish Water have sufficient income to complete the necessary upgrades?

There is much to be commended in the report from the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, but much is also lacking.

The positives: A suggested referendum to put the issue of public ownership of the network to bed once and for all. A requirement to ring-fence funding for Irish Water. An enhanced role for consumers in shaping policy. More money for rural water schemes.

And the negatives? No real clarity on how those who waste water will be penalised, coupled with a real question as to how to prove "wilful" wastage - is it leaving the taps running day and night? Is it showering or taking a bath more than once a day? How will these households be forced to pay a charge?

Nothing either to oblige developers of apartment blocks and other large buildings to include water conservation measures such as rainwater harvesting systems, merely a suggestion they be incentivised to do so.

And there's also the notion the Government "considers how best" to encourage families to take up the offer of a free water meter. What purpose this will serve in the absence of a price on water remains to be seen.

Of course, this is only a report. It's the legislation which follows which will determine if we face a legal showdown with the European Commission.

Experts have argued that the lack of a price on water could pose a difficulty with complying with the polluter-pays principle, and lead to trouble. There's also the fact that by law, we should have stopped discharging raw sewage into waters more than a decade ago, but failed to do so, which is the subject of separate enforcement action. Will Europe's patience run out? Will it seek to make an example of Ireland?

While some suggest we and others breach EU law all the time, and that this issue is no different, it is. It's different because poor quality water poses threats to human health. Drinking water has to be safe to drink. Raw sewage causes pollution, impacts on wildlife, and presents a less-than-compelling picture of a green Ireland.

It's also a basic requirement for any developed country that it can deal with this most basic of public services in an efficient and environmentally sound manner. The fact we haven't to date should be cause for national embarrassment.

If there's any certainty at all, it's that Irish Water remains in place and can continue its work. The regulator has advised it is becoming more efficient and is reducing its costs, so on the face of it, it's functioning as designed.

But the report says its current commercial loan facility should be reviewed and replaced with State borrowings, which will impact on the ability of future governments to borrow for other public services. It's back to that issue of money. The report also says the Government 'must' provide long-term funding certainty for the utility. The amount will be key - at least €1bn for operations, and €600m for capital per annum would appear to be needed.

The only way to assess if this deal is the right one is by keeping a close eye on annual drinking and bathing water quality reports from the EPA, usage data from Irish Water and analysis of the utility's performance by the regulator. If there isn't sustained improvement on quality and conservation year after year, we will know who to blame.

Irish Independent

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