The Irish government is about to be hauled to the European Court of Justice for breach of EU water law.
This legal action has nothing to do with water charges or the Water Framework Directive.
Forty waste water treatment plans across the state are in serious breach of the Urban Waste Water Directive. They are pumping raw sewage into our rivers and bays.
The European Commission enforcement action began back in 2012. At that time there were 80 locations in breach of EU standards. While progress has been made the Commission is tired of the foot dragging by the Irish Government and has decided to up the ante.
The Environmental Protection Agency has spent decades warning the Government that its low level of investment in waste water treatment would end badly.
They were right but unfortunately Government wasn’t listening.
Meanwhile 47% of all treated water is wasted by the state in the public distribution system.
The failure of successive Government to invest in our water and sanitation system is not some exception. This is how Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do public services.
The crisis in our water service has the same root cause as the crises in our housing, health and childcare systems – underinvestment, fragmented delivery and short term planning.
Given these stark facts you would think our public debate on water would be about these big ticket items. But no, instead we are talking about swimming pools and water wasting neighbours.
In their submission to the Expert Commission Irish Water confirmed that we have one of the lowest domestic consumption levels in the OECD. We consume an average of 123 litres per person per day. In England average consumption is 140 litres, Sweden its 200 litres while in the US its over 300 letters per person per day.
Irish Water’s figures also show that the number of households who have high water consumption is also very low. When you strip out leaks and family size or medical circumstances the amount of wilful water wastage appears minimal.
Despite this, for two weeks Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have slugged it out over the issue.
Fine Gael want to spend up to €300m completing the universal domestic metering programme. Then they want to spend tens of millions annually monitoring and billing for this so called excess use.
Despite repeated requests for estimates at the Oireachtas Water Committee neither the Department of Housing or Irish Water could tell us what such a charge would raise or how much water it would save.
In all likelihood conservation would be negligible while costs would be prohibitive and loss making.
Meanwhile Fianna Fáil have proposed strengthening the 2007 Water Services Act to tackle domestic water wasters. Current this legislation allows local authorities to levy fines of up to €5000 for excess water or have people jailed for three months.
Given that the real water wasters are the successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fail Ministers who presided over the system to date surely it would be a better idea to hit them with big fines and jail sentences.
The fact remains that domestic water waste is minimal and investment would be better spent upgrading the substandard water treatment plants and fixing the leaking public pipes
The real debate we should be having is how do we guarantee that our water and sanitation services have the required level of current and capital expenditure to provide good quality services that comply with EU law.
Irish Water was created to fix a very Irish problem. The Government didn’t want to invest to bring the water system up to EU standards. The EU would fine the Government if it failed to meet these standards.
The solution – give Irish Water an independent revenue stream from its so called customers against which it can borrow on the private markets to fix the leaking pipes and outdated treatment plants.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour weren’t too bothered at the cost of this debt or the impact of high levels of water poverty. They were just happy that they were off the hook for the €13bn required to bring our water system up to EU standards.
Thankfully the people knew better. Our opposition to water charges and the Irish Water business model was not some short sighted populism. It was based on real policy fears –debt, poverty and privatisation- and a belief that better options are available.
Unfortunately Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil still haven’t got with the programme. Coveney’s charge for so called excess use is nothing more than a trojan horse for universal charges in the future. Cowan’s new found love of the 2007 Water Service Act has nothing to do with conservation, he just wants to look like he cares.
This is a fake water war designed to distract attention from the fact that while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cant agree on what to do with water charges neither want to fight an election on the issue.
They are rapidly running out of time. The public and the European Commission are low on patience. Delaying the inevitable is no longer an option.
It is time we put the issue of domestic household water charges to bed once and for all.
It is possible to design a funding and delivery model for water and sanitation services that meets public expectations and the environmental obligations of EU water law without domestic metered water charges and without the threat of unsustainable debt, widespread water poverty and possible service privatisation.
What does such a model look like? It looks like Scottish Water or Water N.I. If they can do it then so can we.
First published in the Sunday Business Post 12.3.17