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Opinion: Communities are reaching boiling point over unfair water charges

People see the concept of charging for a basic human right for what it is – a deeply unfair political choice.

John Douglas

TOMORROW, COMMUNITIES ALL across Ireland will be making preparations to attend one of the largest national demonstrations for decades. Buses have been organised from the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal to Cobh in Cork and they’ll all be descending on Dublin to turn the capital blue for the day.

This uprising is not being led by a political party nor by trade unions, it is being led by activists and citizens on the ground who are angry at the imposition of unfair water charges.

Notwithstanding the scandals associated with Irish Water and the allegations of cronyism, people see the concept of charging for a basic human right for what it is; a deeply unfair political choice.

The Right2Water campaign, which comprises trade unions, political parties, community groups, academics and a whole range of representative organisations, has called the demonstration and at the heart of the campaign is the vision for a fairer Ireland.

Firstly, let’s dispel some myths and look at what the implications of water charges are for our society.

The conservation argument

We’ve been told that water charges are about conservation. However, the allowance of 30,000 litres per person per year is more than 6,000 litres lower than what the UN has declared as sufficient. Water charges were established with the intention of raising €300-400m in the first year. So what happens if everyone in Ireland reduces their water use below the allowance? Government will have to reduce the allowance further or increase the price – without this there will be a massive hole in the public finances.

Furthermore, if there were real concerns about conservation, government could have invested in fixing the infrastructure where up to 40% of all treated water is being leaked.

Water is a “precious resource that must be paid for”

Nobody is saying they do not want to pay for water. What we’re saying very clearly is that we already pay for water through our general taxation system, which is progressive and fair.

It takes into account your ability to pay and is the best way to ensure the most vulnerable are protected. For instance, the unemployed, ill, elderly and the disabled spend more time in their homes and so will use more water incurring higher charges.

A new type of poverty

Currently 1 in 10 people in Ireland experience food poverty, 13% go without heating and 100,000 are in mortgage arrears. Our Government, however, managed to create a whole new form of poverty which will add misery to those already suffering greatly.

The ESRI has estimated that up to 6% of the population will experience water poverty – which is defined as spending more than 3% of your income on water.

2,500 jobs may be lost

The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) estimates that water charges may cost up to 2,500 jobs as a result of removing more than €300m from the spending power of ordinary people.

With 250,000 people already unemployed, we should be ensuring we protect jobs in the retail and services sectors.

Water charges will redistribute wealth

Water charges are an indirect tax and like all consumption taxes they will be regressive meaning those in the lowest income categories will pay a higher proportion of their income on them. The charges will be paid by almost everyone. The unemployed, the disabled, the ill, the lowest paid and pensioners will all be expected to contribute to the €300-400m water charges pot.

In the meantime, as was confirmed this week by the Taoiseach, those on the highest income tax rate will be receiving a tax break in the upcoming budget. Coincidently, it is estimated the tax break will cost the exchequer about €300-400m. The Minister for Finance explained earlier this year that only 17% of people paid the highest rate of tax last year, so we can safely say that the most vulnerable will be subsidising tax breaks for the top 17% of earners.

We all see through the spin

The reason why people are so angry and upset at the imposition of water charges is because they see through all the spin. While millions have been spent on PR consultants and advertising campaigns by Irish Water, they can’t hide the fact that water charges are immoral and unfair and the majority of the population believe that water should be paid for through general taxation.

That’s why tomorrow’s protest will be one of the biggest we’ve ever seen in our capital. People are rising up and saying enough is enough. More than 35,000 people signed our petition in less than a week and we’re expecting more than 10,000 on the streets tomorrow.

Our vision for our country is for a fairer more caring society. That means access to water should not depend on your income. Water is a human right and a public good, not a commodity. If you share that belief you should join with the Right2Water campaign and attend tomorrow’s rally.

All participants are asked to assemble at 2pm, Garden of Remembrance, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 and to please wear blue.

John Douglas, Mandate Trade Union General Secretary.

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About the author:

John Douglas

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