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Monday 29 May 2023 Dublin: 16°C
We need to put conservation, fairness and investment at the heart of our water system.

HOW DID WE end up here? We find ourselves in a situation where less than half of those billed by Irish Water have so far paid their bills and at least a quarter of the population say they never will. They are supported by half the political system who say they will abolish water charges and get rid of Irish Water if they are elected.

Just when it looked like the water issue was settling down, it is back on the agenda, with protesters blocking the gates of the Dáil and the members from both left and right saying they have lost faith in the State on this issue. Abuse is being hurled from each side in a way that has contaminated our political debate.  It is not just our rivers, lakes and seas that have been polluted.

Kicking the watering can down the road is no longer an option

When you talk to people about the problem you do find some common ground.  There is an understanding that water and sewerage services have to be paid for and that investment has to increase.  People can see we have a problem whenever a boil notice is put in place, or when water pressure in parts of Dublin dropped to a trickle or when a sick stomach can be traced back to a particular seaside swim.

Unfortunately kicking the watering can down the road is no longer a viable option. The facts of the matter are clear. We live in a country where almost 50% of treated water is lost through leaks; where raw sewage is discharged in 44 urban locations; where we only have the capacity to treat 50% of the sludge produced by septic tanks and where 30% of private wells are polluted with E. coli. Moreover, climate change is likely to bring bigger winter floods in the West and summer droughts in the east, just as our capital finds itself without an adequate water supply.

I don’t need to recount the litany of political mistakes the Government have made in the last three years but we all know that where we have ended up is not the right solution.

Irish Water is going to be the hottest item in any new programme for government

The flat rate charging system now in place neither raises the necessary funding nor gives any signal to support conservation of water supplies. The Government says they will revise things again after 2017 but that conveniently puts the issue on the long finger in the year of an election. No one knows that the next Government is going to do but one thing is certain, the treatment of Irish Water is going to be the hottest item in any programme for government negotiation, no matter who gets in.

I don’t accept that the alternatives proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance or Sinn Fein provide a credible alternative. Sinn Fein were not in favour of a boycott, then they were. They say they would abolish Irish Water, but haven’t outlined how they would fund water services, or what new system they would put in place. Fianna Fáil similarly want a return to the old ways that left us with an archaic water infrastructure.

Both parties are being outflanked by the Anti-Austerity Alliance who believe the ‘can’t pay – won’t pay’ campaign can be a re-run of the poll tax campaign that succeeded in bringing down Margaret Thatcher. They fail to address the fundamental problems we are facing.

We propose a five-step overhaul

The Green Party Comhaontas Glas propose a radical overhaul of Irish Water which we hope can break the political stalemate that is leading to such division in our country.

We need an overhaul that will address people’s concerns about double taxation, secure the required investment in our infrastructure, and put conservation at the heart of the debate, where it should be. A new Irish Water, that’s fit for purpose, would end the standoff, and secure our water for future generations.

We propose a five-step overhaul that would provide a mediated solution.

1. Put the right to water in our Constitution

The first step to reforming Irish Water is ensuring that it remains publicly owned, forever. This has been a cornerstone of the Right to Water campaign from the start.  The only way to ensure that Irish Water isn’t privatised in the future is to enshrine the public ownership of public water resources in the constitution.

The Government have repeatedly used words like “clarity”, and “certainty” regarding changes to Irish Water. A referendum on public ownership of the utility would provide absolute, 100% certainty for the future. More importantly it would recognise the value of our environment. Water is not a commodity to be traded. It is a precious natural resource, and its unique importance as a public good should be recognised in law.

2. Put conservation at the centre of a new charging system

We propose that every citizen receive an ample free water allowance, higher than the current levels. The majority of people use water responsibly, and shouldn’t have to pay for their typical daily use. Charges should be incurred for amounts above this level, which would still provide a real incentive for conservation.

This incentive could be backed up with a conservation grant for domestic water harvesting equipment rather than the current €100 per household refund which provides no incentive to save.

3. Provide investment via joint EU/Central exchequer funds along with a charge

The third step deals with the inevitable questions raised by the second. If we don’t have the necessary investment coming from domestic water charges, how do we fund the critically needed investment without breaking the Eurozone fiscal compact rules?

One solution would be for the Government to use the flexibility mechanisms that have been promised as part of the new ‘Juncker Investment Plan’ which allows certain joint European and national exchequer investments to be excluded from the general budgetary rules. Such investment will have to be productive and also meet other agreed European policy objectives.

We will not be able to claim such flexibility if we proceed with a solution that has no charging mechanism but we can make the case for a change in the rules if we can show it is part of a strategy where we are starting to take our environmental responsibilities seriously.

4. Make Irish Water a national billing organisation with regional infrastructure companies

It would be difficult and expensive to return the management of our water and sewerage system back to the old local authority model. Rather than reversing all the changes of recent years and decommissioning the metering system that has been put in place we should use Irish Water as a central billing company.

Infrastructure investment in water and waste management services could be organised around the same water catchment areas that are recognised the EU Water Framework Directive. This would empower regional and local government and ensure we managed our land use and natural resources in a proper sustainable way. Irish Water already deploys its resources on a regional basis – managing them around the existing eight river basins makes sense.

5. Put water quality at the centre of other national plans

It makes no sense to make a large investment in water quality only to see gains lost from other policy decisions. The plan to specialise Irish agriculture and land use narrowly on dairy presents a real threat in this regard. New Zealand followed a similar path and have had to make an expensive retreat as a consequence of the water pollution their agriculture policies caused.

Nor does it make sense for Minister Alan Kelly to be proposing a weakening in building regulations which could only repeat the mistakes of the past and see us having to retrofit expensive solutions to protect local ground water from badly built buildings.

In the end this issue is an environmental one. We need to start seeing our connection and appreciation of nature as being an essential part of what we are and what we do as a country.

Put conservation, fairness and investment at the heart of our water system and Irish citizens will back it.

Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party Comhaontas Glas. He is appearing at the MacGill Summer School tonight for a panel discussion on Irish Water. For updates follow @greenparty_ie and @EamonRyan on Twitter.

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