This week Irish Water, the State’s new water utility, takes a historic step in its evolution.
The start of a nationwide metering campaign is the first major tangible output from the utility since the Government announced its intention to transform the water system barely 15 months ago.
As well as representing a significant capital stimulus to the economy and creating 1,600 jobs for the 3½-year duration of the programme, the scheme will also empower consumers to manage their water use in a manner that has not been possible for domestic users up to now.
Metering has been proven to lead to a reduction in water consumption. It is also instrumental in helping customers understand the value of water.
Our villages, towns and cities have developed around our natural water sources, and the health and prosperity of these communities have been shaped by the development of these services over the past 130 years.
We can trace such development from the Vartry scheme developed in the 1800s, which helped eradicate cholera in the centre of Dublin, to the Cork city and lower harbour scheme built in the 1970s, which facilitated the development of the pharma industry.
However, our investment in water services over the past 130 years has simply been inadequate. Local authorities have done some amazing work in a very restricted financial environment but unless we make some radical changes in the way we finance the sector our problems will multiply.
As it stands we have an ageing infrastructure, a growing population that needs additional water services and a need for spare capacity in our major urban areas. Allied to this the predicted effects of climate change mean supply will be less reliable. Hence the need to establish Irish Water.
The necessary changes will require significant investment, which will see the reintroduction of domestic water charges, with the first bills coming in early 2015. The nature and structure of these charges will be determined by the Commission for Energy Regulation, which has the responsibility to ensure a fair price for a top- class and reliable service.
Clean water at the turn of a tap has never been free of charge and the taxpayer has always contributed to the subvention provided by government.
However, reducing the subvention and replacing it with a direct water charge will place a focus on conservation in recognition of water’s value as a resource.
Everyone has a part to play in conservation and this, in tandem with investment in repairing mains, will result in much less wastage. The Government will also be introducing a policy of assisting home owners to repair leaks to pipes on their properties – referred to as a “first fix policy”. However possibly the most proactive part of our plan to assist people conserve water is the Irish Water domestic metering programme.
This is one of the most ambitious programmes ever seen internationally, with the goal of installing water meters for over a million homes by the end of 2016, an average rate of installation of about 27,000 meters a month. Installation will be done with minimal inconvenience to householders; the device being installed under the footpath outside the property; there will be no need to enter anyone’s house.
The benefit of a water meter is that it helps consumers understand their water usage and international experience shows that water consumption declines as a result.
It should be noted that Irish people use 24 per cent more per capita than our Danish counterparts. A hugely important aspect of the metering process is that it will generate jobs locally. It will involve an investment of over half a billion euro in our economy and we expect to see about 1,600 people employed in the programme.
The recruitment by the regional contractors is additional to the 400 jobs already announced for our new call centre in Cork.
We intend to make the services of Irish Water as accessible as possible. Our headquarters will be in Dublin and we will have a shared service facility in Cork. We will also have a network of eight offices in Donegal, Castlebar, Cavan, Mullingar, Dublin, Limerick, Mallow and Kilkenny .
We are fortunate to have Bord Gáis as our parent company, bringing its utility experience to bear on our development and huge progress has been made since it was given responsibility for establishing Irish Water last year. We also look forward to developing a very beneficial partnership with local authorities under service level agreements.
Irish Water has huge ambition for the future of the water service in this country. Given the importance of water as a resource, this is the only way forward. People can access information on our website at water.ie and/or on our helpline on 1890.278.278 for more information.
Dr John Tierney is managing director of Irish Water.