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'Water charges would already be abolished, if we had a functioning democracy'

Domestic water charges are economically inefficient, environmentally unsound and socially destructive, writes David Gibney.

David Gibney

“THE IRISH SYSTEM of paying for water and sanitation services through progressive taxation and non-domestic user fees is an exemplary model of fair, equitable and sustainable service delivery for the entire world.”

These are the words of internationally renowned environmentalist Maude Barlow, the world’s leading expert on water and sanitation provision.

The fact of the matter is domestic water charges are economically inefficient, environmentally unsound and socially destructive.

Economically inefficient

Domestic water charges increase the cost of water supply enormously. The largest increase in expenditure comes from the installation of more than one million water meters.

This has already cost Ireland more than €500 million, and the first stage of that programme hasn’t yet been completed.

Once the meters are installed, you need to pay for the maintenance, administration and replacement of the meters, which Gerry Concannon, senior executive engineer for water, says will almost double the cost of water supply per domestic unit.

10/12/2014 Anti Water Charges Campaigns Protests A 2014 protest against water charges. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Then factor in the costs for posting bills and, at current rate, the company could spend up to €90 million on consultants and €2.85 million on advertising.

So now we have the continuing costs of hundreds of millions of euro and Irish Water hasn’t fixed one leak or treated one drop of water with that money.

Right2Water believes all this money should be spent on upgrading outdated infrastructure, fixing leaks and incentivising water saving devices.

Conservation

The reason we ‘don’t need’ water meters is because there is no environmental benefit to having them. In two years of public debate on this issue, neither the government nor Irish Water have provided one shred of evidence to show that water meters provide a positive environmental outcome.

In fact, the evidence that we do have counters this claim. For example, in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands it has been found that metering makes little difference to the amount of water used by families.

17/4/2012 Establishment of Irish Water Boards Former Environment Minister Phil Hogan at the launch of Irish Water in 2012. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

While consumption dropped initially following the installation of meters, after a relatively short time this was reversed with families returning to the pre-metered level of consumption.

Furthermore, Irish Water estimates that Irish individuals use 54,750 litres of water per year.

The average usage for a single person in the UK is 68,405 per year, approximately 20% more, and the UK has had water meters since the late 1980s.

Not surprisingly, the Irish government has admitted it never investigated whether introducing water charges would have a negative effect on the environment.

When you consider the manufacturing process behind one million water meters, their installation – where hundreds of vans are driving around the country burning fuel and drilling holes in the ground – and then the postage of six million letters in six million envelopes, among other activities, you’d have to wonder what kind of negative footprint the water charges policy is having on our environment for no water conservation benefit.

Social impacts

Simon Coveney, the minister with responsibility for water, refused a minor alteration to the Expert Commission on Water’s Terms of Reference, which would have allowed the Commission to report on:

The social implications of funding water services in the short, medium and long term – including water poverty, future privatisation and potential water shut offs for low income families.

The reason this was denied is obvious. Domestic water charges wreak havoc across the world and infringe on human rights almost everywhere they have been implemented.

In the UK, 23% of families now live in water poverty. Since Margaret Thatcher privatised the UK water industry in 1989, the price of water has gone up by more than 313% – double the cost of all other goods.

The price of water in five US cities – Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, San Francisco and Tucson – ballooned by more than 50% over five years, five times higher than inflation.

In Detroit, 70,000 families have had their water shut off for being unable to pay their rising bills. The same has occurred to families in Hungary, Cyprus, Paris, Rome and the Czech Republic.

The reason this is happening is because water is fast becoming the most profitable industry in the world and a very effective tax avoidance industry.

Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter explained:

Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.

When water is commodified, it inevitably leads to privatisation and a breach in human rights. Some might think this couldn’t happen in Ireland? Remember, the original plan for water charges by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, and then the Fine Gael and Labour government’s plans.

They wanted to introduce water charges at an average rate of between €400-€500 per year. That would have meant your average retail worker, hospitality worker and pensioner would immediately have been thrown into water poverty as they’d be spending more than 3% of their income on water.

And the minister at the time, Phil Hogan said, if you couldn’t pay your water bill, your water would be turned down to a trickle.

Privatisation

Domestic water charges will lead to privatisation in the future. If you doubt that, ask yourself why the Irish government stubbornly refuses to give us a referendum to enshrine ownership of our water in the Constitution.

Even if a future government didn’t want to privatise, the EU and the IMF have a history of forcing countries to sell off their water in times of economic turbulence, just like they did to Greece and Portugal in recent years.

They couldn’t do it to Ireland during our bailout because there was no revenue-raising stream. Instead, they instigated the first step, the installation of meters.

That’s why tomorrow, Saturday 17 September, the Right2Water campaign will be hosting its eighth national demonstration in two years. This time, however, is the first demonstration since the general election less than seven months ago where more than two thirds of all TD’s were elected on the basis that they would scrap water charges.

Since the election, the government has kicked the can down the road with the hope of resurrecting this regressive and socially destructive policy in the future.

The fact is if we had a functioning democracy, water charges would already be abolished, not suspended, and abolished for good.

Our message is clear, we want an end to water charges and a referendum to enshrine ownership of our water in the Constitution.

The assembly points for the Right2Water demonstration include Connolly Station, Heuston Station and Sir John Rogersons’ Quay.

David Gibney is communications officer with Mandate Trade Union and a Right2Water coordinator.

FactCheck: Has Fianna Fáil’s position on water charges really been “consistent”? >

Read: “Tens of thousands” expected to protest water charges (and the government’s Apple decision) >

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David Gibney

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