Saturday 19 October 2019

Us culchies know it costs money to make water usable

Water charge protesters in Swords
Water charge protesters in Swords

Sarah Carey

I'VE been listening to the water charges row with a certain sense of distance, and that’s not a metaphor.

I live in a rural area and therefore won’t be a “customer” of Irish Water. Like most rural dwellers too far from town, we have a private well and “waste water treatment system” that deals with our poo. I have to admit when the form arrived from Irish Water it felt like I’d won €500 in the Lotto.

So I’ve kept the head down a bit - apart from pointing out that the EU passed a law in 2000 giving us 15 years to bring in domestic water rates. With 7 weeks to go, we’re barely meeting the deadline. However there’s one argument being made against charges that seems clever but has irked me.

It’s the point that since water is currently paid for from the central exchequer then Irish Water customers are due a refund. Every time I hear it I think – hang on, I pay the same income tax and VAT as everyone else but I don’t get any water services. There are half million households with  “on-site” waste-water treatment systems like me. Does that mean we should get a refund too, not just “going-forward” but historical too? If pressed, I could build a reasonably good case for reparations.

I’d start out by listing all the costs of providing one’s own water and waste-water services. They are considerable. In fact, the only thing we didn’t pay for was the water diviner who did the most important job - finding a source. Apparently it messes with the magic if you pay. Don’t ask me how it works but within a few minutes, an old woman with a twig walked to a spot in the middle of a field and told us there was water at about 13-15 feet. When the lads came to bore the well they hit it at 12. Shallow well! Hurrah! If it was deep it could’ve set us back several thousand. After that, it was money, money, money.

With the well lined and piped back to a shed, a pump cost around €600. That has to be serviced each winter with between €100 to €150 going to the plumber. It’s ten years old now and we’ve had to replace a few parts, usually around €100 each time. We’re not sure what life is left in it but are bracing ourselves for the day it keels over. Our plumber says when it needs replacing we should get a submersible pump in the well which will use less electricity (pumps are murder on electricity) and that’ll be over €1000.

We’ve lime in the water so we need a water-softening device. At the time of purchase that was about five or six hundred euros, but if you’ve iron you’ll need one that could cost up to five grand. That needs a bag of salt every month. They’re eight euros each. I was reared on Ecoli from the private well on the farm on which I grew up, but decided my husband and children might benefit from clean water, so we got a reverse osmosis filter system for drinking water. That’s another €500 plus about €120 to service and replace the filter annually. Some people need something better that will kill coliforms and they cost several thousand plus the annual service charge.

That’s just to get water into the house. What comes out is less trouble but just as much money. Ours is a  “biocycle” system, which is a large concrete box buried under the garden. The poo goes there and we’re under strict instructions not to use bleaches or biological washing powders as they prevent the bacteria that breaks down the waste from doing its job. I’m always bemused to see my urban friends lashing Domestos down the toilet, oblivious to the havoc it wreaks on the environment. The biocycle unit cost €5000 and we have to get it emptied every year. That costs about €200 and we get a certificate in return which we need as part of the Septic Tank Registration Scheme.

That’s the inspection regime brought in to make sure we’re not poisoning our well water – or our neighbours – and most people I know were relieved at its introduction. Those people whose septic tanks need upgrading will do so at their own expense. By the way, that system was introduced as a result of the same EU law – the Water Framework Directive 2000 – that requires the introduction of domestic water rates.

So us culchies are very well aware that while water may indeed be a human right, it costs money to render it usable and dispose of safely. But the point I want to make is this; even though I pay for all this myself and pay the same income tax and VAT as anyone else, I’m not looking for any refund from general taxation. 

I know I’m privileged to live where I do. The list of the costs above is not a complaint. I made the choice to live here after weighing up the costs and benefits. If subsidising city people’s water and sewage treatment is one of those costs that’s okay. City residents avail of many other services rural people don’t. Eamon O’Cuiv tells me every street light costs between €50 and €60.  I don’t expect, nor do I want, rural areas publicly lit.  The subsidy to Dublin Bus, which serves 1.5million people, was just over €60 million last year. That to Bus Eireann - serving the other three million in the country-  was only  €32 million. By the time the Cross-City line is completed, LUAS will have cost the state over a billion euros to construct. The vast majority of the population who live outside Dublin will never use LUAS. But whose looking for a rebate?

By the same token there are rural roads in Ireland a city person will never travel on that cost money to maintain, but what do you want? Toll every highway and by-way so we only pay for what we get?  Will we give people with no children cash-back since they don’t get the children’s allowance?

It would get ludicrous. Taxation is not a system through which one purchases specific services. Everyone pays into a central pot and the government divides it up. As the system is tweaked the pie is divided differently – some services increase (children’s allowance) – some disappear (rubbish collection). I believe in Denmark or Germany, or some other Utopia, people get a receipt from their local authority stating what services they get. As we move from a system of central to local funding for local services we could and should get to that point.

So I’ve lots of quibbles with the set-up of Irish Water and the system selected for water charges. But the argument that the €200 million raised annually from all tax-payers and spent exclusively on urban water and waste-water should now be refunded to customers of Irish Water sounds good. But for those who get no services, it’s not quite as clever as it sounds.

Online Editors

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