Water shortages: paying a price for years of neglect

Restrictions on an essential service are the legacy of decades of poor policy

For decades, successive governments failed to invest in water infrastructure, operated by local authorities. But when Irish Water was established to overhaul the system and a water charge was introduced, all hell broke loose. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

For decades, successive governments failed to invest in water infrastructure, operated by local authorities. But when Irish Water was established to overhaul the system and a water charge was introduced, all hell broke loose. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

A safe and dependable water supply contributes directly to the quality of life of citizens and promotes economic growth and social development. Yet three days of snow and freezing temperatures brought water rationing, boil water notices and a complete cessation of services in some areas. Frost damage to antiquated mains caused some of the problems. But this was exacerbated when people ran their taps at night to avoid the risk of freezing pipes. How else can a 60 per cent surge in usage in the Dublin region be explained? When water is “free” the urge to conserve it goes out the window.

Irish Water has declared an effective emergency. A restriction has been imposed on water supplies in the Dublin area, affecting more than a million people, from 8pm to 6am. The restriction may last for weeks or even months. It has limited or shut down service to some housing estates on high ground while impacting severely on catering and other businesses. Local authorities have responded by dispatching water tankers to urban centres. Customers are being asked to reduce their usage while reservoirs are being replenished by melting snow or rainfall. Supply problems are not confined to the Dublin region. Residents in at least six counties have lost their normal supply or been advised it is unsafe to drink. A spillage of kerosene in Tipperary put the local treatment plant out of operation and water there cannot be used for human consumption.

For decades, successive governments failed to invest in this vital infrastructure, operated by local authorities. But when Irish Water was established to overhaul the system and a water charge was introduced, all hell broke loose. The terms set for the survival of this minority Fine Gael-led Government was the abolition of all domestic water charges, except in cases involving “excessive use”. Back in 2016, the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities defined “excessive use” as amounting to 70 per cent more than average demand. But no political appetite has existed to reactivate the issue.

Seven per cent of customers were identified as abusing the service through deliberate wastage or by way of leaking pipes. It accounted for one-third of all the treated water produced in the State in 2016. Special charges may now be imposed in such instances. But nothing is likely to happen this side of an election because ministerial approval has not been forthcoming. No charges will be imposed this year “under any circumstances”, according to Irish Water, and bills for excessive usage will not be issued until June 2019 at the earliest. This is an appalling way to run a service, especially as water and sewage projects have been forced – once again – to compete for investment with capital demands from health and education.

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