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Dublin: 8°C Friday 22 October 2021
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Opinion: Yes, we should pay water charges – but we should also get an improved service

Water doesn’t fall from the clouds and into our taps. It takes a vast infrastructural network to provide us with safe drinking water.

Liam Doherty

ACCESS TO CLEAR water is a basic human right but to protect that right we need to start paying for it. Water doesn’t fall from the clouds and into our taps. It takes a vast infrastructural network to provide us with safe drinking water. It is impounded behind huge dams and reservoirs. It is screened to remove debris. Chemical agents are added to remove smaller particles before it is filtered. It is disinfected through the addition of chlorine. Finally, it is transmitted through tens of thousands of kilometres of 100 year old pipes.

At its heart charging for water makes sense, more than that; it’s necessary. Up to 70% of a local authority’s energy bill is spent on water services. Pumping systems throughout the country are in need of an upgrade to more efficient designs and capital is needed for both research and procurement. In Kerry and Tipperary, the introduction of monitors, controls and variable speed pumps has seen energy savings of 20 – 40%.

Water is a finite resource with an infinite demand. Yes, it rains every other day on the island but the effects of climate change and urbanisation makes capturing this rain and recharging our sources acutely more difficult. We are faced with wetter winters but the rain is falling heavier over shorter periods of time and no longer has time to soak into the ground instead flowing overland. This not only increases the risk of flooding but also the likelihood of contaminants being washed into rivers and lakes. Drier summers bring their own obvious problems.

When rain falls on our sprawling towns and cities it has nowhere to go but into road gullies and storm drains carrying rubbish, oil, petrol, and anything else our streets have to offer, with it. It is then flushed into the nearest river or sent to the nearest treatment plant potentially contaminating rivers and putting unpredictable pressure on wastewater treatment works.

We lose nearly half our treated water 

Losing 41% of our water to leaks is unacceptable both from a conservation and fiscal perspective. Now that we are paying customers, we have the right and the responsibility to demand an improved quality of service and the entitlement to complete transparency as to where our money is being spent. Money can and should be diverted into improving both the efficiency and effectiveness of water and wastewater treatment plants. Replacing these pipes, while initially expensive, must become a priority; once this happens 41% less water will need to be extracted and cleaned before transmission. From a preservation point of view it is an obligation, while from a monetary standpoint it frees up much needed capital to invest in other areas throughout the system.

Paying for our water should not only ensure an improved water network it will make us more vigilant in our use, stop wastefulness and so conserve this most fundamental resource. In the EU, only Italy takes more water from its rivers, streams, lakes and ground than Ireland per capita (a fact no doubt amplified by our leaking pipelines). However, we also use 30 litres more per person than our German counterparts every day. Maybe we are more self-conscious about body odour and need an extra shower every day. Maybe we are more physically active and need to rehydrate by drinking an extra 120 glasses of water every day. Or maybe we just don’t think about the water we waste because it has never had a personal impact on our lives, or, more pertinently, our pockets.

Conservation 

The European Environment Agency has reported that when water charges are introduced consumption decreases by up to 30%. Our experience is certain to match this, if not surpass it: when charging begins in October we will use less water. Our taps will stop running while we brush our teeth. Washing machines will be packed before being turned on. We’ll stop filling the kettle for a single cup of tea. We’ll limit our singing in the shower to one song rather than an entire album. We’ll question the need to use water – specifically extracted and cleaned to the point that it is safe for human consumption – to irrigate our gardens, wash our cars and flush away our waste when harvested rainwater and greywater (recycled water from basins and showers) are fit for these purposes.

Although badly needed, the introduction of water charges has been badly timed and a PR disaster. The allocation of 30,000 litres of free water to each household should be met with scepticism. Over one million households in Ireland consist of at least two adults and the free allocation of water will account for less than 28% of water usage in these households. The metered rates for households requiring water and wastewater services proposed by the Commission for Energy Regulation will see us paying €4.88 per 1000 litres; that’s more than double the average in Western Europe: the more “free” water you get, the more you pay for the chargeable water.

We already pay €1bn a year to have water running from our taps. By paying for what we use the economic burden is lifted from the exchequer and the hope is that as the country staggers from its knees we will be reimbursed through cuts elsewhere in general taxation. By paying for what we use we can expect and demand a better quality of service. By paying for what we use we will help conserve our most precious natural resource.

Liam Doherty is a PhD candidate at the Dooge Centre for Water Resources Research, Earth Institute, UCD. He is funded by the HEA and co-funded by the ERDF.

Read: Here’s how much you’ll be expected to pay for water

Read: The next Government will have to hike water charges – ESRI

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Liam Doherty

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