Wednesday 21 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'How the politics of water has put a referendum in the pipeline'

The most important issue over Ireland's water supply is the way it is run, not its ownership, writes Liam Weeks

'While we suffer from a lack of natural resources in many areas, you would not have thought water would be one such scarce commodity' Stock image
'While we suffer from a lack of natural resources in many areas, you would not have thought water would be one such scarce commodity' Stock image

Liam Weeks

The Apollo 11 mission that put the first people on the Moon was commemorated last week. When, 50 years ago, the three astronauts onboard their tiny lunar capsule looked down on Earth, they must have wondered about the validity of our planet's name.

Just one-quarter of its land mass is earth; the rest is the water of the seas and oceans. Perhaps the title of Kevin Costner's post-apocalyptic film flop from the 1990s, Waterworld, might have been a more apt name. Despite all this water, it remains a scarce commodity. One in 10 people - 666m - do not have access to clean drinking water.

Half of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa, and 80pc in rural communities. In 41 countries, most of them in the developing world, up to one-fifth of people drink water from unprotected sources.

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Of course, Ireland is not a developing country, and despite sporadic boil water notices in some local communities, almost all of us have access to clean water. Despite its relative cleanliness, however, water, if you'll pardon the pun, remains a toxic issue.

To an outsider, this must seem something of a paradox. We're a relatively under-populated small island nation, surrounded by water, and with a mild, temperate climate.

While we suffer from a lack of natural resources in many areas, you would not have thought water would be one such scarce commodity.

If anything, you'd be wondering why we don't have more companies, such as Ballygowan and Tipperary, selling water by the gallon, in the manner by which countries in the Middle East have made themselves rich off their own liquid gold of oil.

And yet, whenever we have a dry spell, such as last summer, the limited nature of our reserves is immediately obvious. It is patently clear there is something wrong with the way in which water is managed as a utility in this country.

One solution proposed by the last government was to charge for this resource. This would have brought in additional revenue, but it would not have tackled the separate issue of how to run Irish Water. As a case in point, pumping more money into the Department of Health has not fixed its problems.

In any case, the government dropped this idea of raising more money for Irish Water, so the next issue for the groups protesting against this company has become its ownership.

They want a referendum to enshrine public ownership of water utilities in the constitution. Just as with the campaign against charges, this ignores the real issue, which is the adequate provision of water. Again last week we heard about Irish Water's proposal to build a pipeline from the Shannon to Dublin, an example of how critical the level of reserves in the capital has become.

Ownership of our water infrastructure will not resolve this issue, which is why the Taoiseach was initially against having this referendum, stating in the Dail in 2017 that he didn't see a value in holding such a vote.

But last week correspondence between the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and the corresponding Minister, Eoghan Murphy, revealed that the Government could be contemplating a referendum on this issue for early next year.

Why has the Government seemed to change its mind? Not because it has become convinced of the usefulness of referendums to resolve an issue; at least, I hope not.

Rather, it is a political solution to a political problem, in particular the intransigence of the unions, who have been demanding a referendum in return for the transfer of 3,500 local authority employees to Irish Water.

All the proposed referendum, if passed, will achieve is to prevent an unlikely event, the privatisation of Irish water, from happening. We hope. But just as with previous referenda on abortion, it can be difficult to foresee all the potential consequences that can arise from constitutional amendments.

For example, in 2016 Solidarity TD Joan Collins introduced a private member's bill calling for such a referendum on this issue. It was not accepted by the government on advice from the Attorney General Seamus Woulfe that there were flaws in the wording that could create a number of problems down the line, such as preventing Irish Water's involvement in public-private partnerships, as well as the issue of private water schemes.

However, this bill was not binned, and since last November, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has been working with the Attorney General and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to produce a workable amendment.

It is quite simple why the Government has capitulated on this issue. Because of the furore caused by the previous attempt to impose water charges, all the main parties are fearful of water rising as an issue once again. Running scared, they are prepared to sacrifice the fundamental laws that define this State over their own partisan interests. And so it seems like we're going to have another referendum because an interest group has demanded it. But what will it solve?

Some argue that it will at least move public debate on from an issue that has sidetracked the real crux over how water is managed and supplied in this country. But is that enough of a reason to change the constitution?

If the Government listened to every interest group's demand for a referendum, we'd be having them every other day. Last year, Switzerland, the country par excellence where referendums are used, had 10 such votes. Imagine if we had one per month on average. It would be more distracting than Brexit. That is one good reason not to favour the Swiss model of citizen-led initiatives, where 100,000 voters can petition for the calling of a referendum.

In Ireland, the cabinet has sole prerogative in this area. While previous governments were reluctant to use this power, we cannot say the same about the current Fine Gael regime. In the eight years since the party returned to office, there have been 11 referendums, and it has promised more, with Murphy expressing a desire for another referendum to be held on the same day as that on Irish Water. In contrast, during the preceding eight years of Fianna Fail-led government between 2003 and 2011, there were just three referendums.

The proposed vote will be but a distraction from the real issues concerning our water supply. Is it just a coincidence that the plans for this referendum were revealed on the same week as the Commission for Regulation of Utilities approved Irish Water's conservation measures?

Its proposal is that homeowners using excess amounts of water over the free annual amount of 213,000 litres will face charges of up to €500. It is estimated that up to one in 10 people are using more than their allocated amount of water. The left-wing parties in the Dail claim that this could be an attempt to reintroduce charges by stealth, but what adds to the complexity of the issue is that up to 40pc of houses are not metered. This raises further questions about the equitable treatment of metered and non-metered households.

Unlike the manner by which it seems to leak through the Irish Water infrastructure, it is patently clear that water is not going away as an issue, and will not, until a successful working model akin to the likes of the ESB can be adopted. But then, of course, the ESB charges for what it supplies.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Dept of Government and Politics at University College Cork

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