Sunday 17 December 2017

Ignoring unpopular truths about the water issue is a surrender to populism

A national body is needed to fix the water system and users will have to be charged. There is no feasible alternative, writes Colm McCarthy

Supply: Neglect has taken its toll on our water system, and higher capital spending is needed to fix it. Photo: Ray Ryan
Supply: Neglect has taken its toll on our water system, and higher capital spending is needed to fix it. Photo: Ray Ryan
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Generations of neglect has taken its toll on Ireland's water supply and waste water disposal systems. The result is cryptosporidium, boil notices, service interruptions, dangerous levels of E. coli, high leakage rates, a looming supply crunch in the Dublin area, pollution of inland water bodies, untreated sewage discharged off coasts and high operating costs.

Numerous expert studies have concluded that the neglect is not sustainable and an engineer-driven national organisation to fix the system is required. Higher capital spending will be needed for several decades. Until recently, user charges were contributing no more than one euro out of every six spent on operations and investment. The outgoing government's plans to raise more from user charges and to entrust the rehabilitation of the water industry to a national, State-owned utility, have been consigned to limbo. Both the future structure of the industry and its financing will be considered afresh by a commission if the Fine Gael minority government goes ahead.

This fudge will come unstuck when the commission concludes that a State-owned national utility is the best option and that user charges, currently confined to commercial customers, contribute too little. It will be a challenge to identify commissioners likely to favour the return of responsibility to 31 local authorities. It will also be hard to ensure a recommendation that financing, current and capital, continues to be provided almost entirely by the taxpayers. The commission will draw attention to the existence of a Water Framework Directive adopted by the European Union 16 years ago and binding on Ireland. The directive, at Article 9, requires a shift towards greater user charges, including user charges for households.

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