Sunday 17 November 2019

John Downing: 'Our water system is at breaking point and needs major funding'


Poor weather conditions on Tara Street in Dublin. Photo: Stephen Collins
Poor weather conditions on Tara Street in Dublin. Photo: Stephen Collins
John Downing

John Downing

It's a crisis when it doesn't rain for as little as 10 days - and it's also a crisis, at times like this, when the rain comes down in sheets for weeks on end.

It says a lot about our inability to order our own affairs that we cannot organise a decent and dependable water and sewerage service on this rain-sodden island. It beggars belief that in this day and age we still have dozens of sites across the country where raw sewage goes directly into our water courses.

It is pretty galling to watch and listen to politicians, who built a voter base on opposition to water charges, now decrying a lack of investment in our water services. What utter rot.

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A second boil water notice inside a fortnight for 600,000-plus homes and businesses in parts of Dublin, Meath and Kildare has begun a predictable blame game directed at Irish Water. The deep irony was Rise TD, Paul Murphy, popping up on RTÉ Radio's 'Today With Sean O'Rourke' castigating Irish Water.

It was that same Mr Murphy's election in a by-election on October 10, 2014, that spooked Sinn Féin into opposing water charges, beginning a political chain reaction which also saw Fianna Fáil flip-flop, and ultimately saw Fine Gael and Labour abandon the water charge plan. There is little point in rehashing the catalogue of basic political and administrative errors, including those of former Irish Water bosses, which led a frustrated public, already at breaking point after years of recession, to successfully reject water charges.

"People power" - be it ever so misplaced - defeated water charges. On the day of that by-election count, October 11, 2014, 100,000 people marched in Dublin protesting against the charges.

As demonstrated in his recent book 'In Deep Water', journalist Michael Brennan shows that the reasonable public fear that the new Irish Water would be privatised proved a huge spur to protesters. History teaches us that if there is one thing worse than a publicly-owned monopoly, it is a private monopoly impervious to citizens' pressure.

But the real problem still with us is that Ireland's 19th-century water system is, like the Irish public in autumn 2014, also at breaking point. Our water system has been neglected by successive governments for decades, and is still seriously underfunded.

This second boil water notice, apparently driven by excessive rain causing run-off pollution in reservoirs, may well be just the start of a series of big crises.

A major complication is that urban householders do not pay directly for water and payment is via their various taxes. Apart from a pretty hopeless effort to introduce water charges in the years 1993-1996, the last time private houses in urban areas paid for water was in 1977 before domestic rates were abolished. Let's not forget that, one way or another, rural homes have always paid for water supplies.

And, at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, when we talk about water charges we are talking about the piping and cleaning of water to be regularly supplied at the turn of a tap. More importantly, we are also talking about that cornerstone of any civilised society that is the sewerage services.

Irish Water depends heavily on businesses paying for water. The charging system is for historic reasons very uneven since the 31 local councils traditionally had different charging schemes. But, to its credit, the company is trying to remedy this in the coming year or so by applying a level scheme of charges.

In 2018, Irish Water took in almost €1bn in revenues. The Government's subvention was an additional €700m-plus - but it must be remembered that this was more than €30m less than the previous year.

The business community has misgivings about the new charging regime. There is also a fear that businesses in Dublin may face an unfair burden. The ludicrous situation of about half the nation's water lost to leaks is far from effective remedy.

One business observer has dubbed Irish Water's funding as "hand-to-mouth" and unduly dependent on State subvention.

Without reliable and increased funding, things can only get worse.

Irish Independent

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