Irish Water: We need political consensus to implement €5.5bn water services plan
Coming at a time of austerity, it was easy to depict water charges as a by-product of austerity – they are not
‘Our water and waste water services are not fit for purpose.’ Photograph: Getty Images
How we decide to deliver water services in Ireland comes down to the kind of society we want. There are fundamental societal questions about which products and services should be seen simply as goods to be bought and sold, and which are seen to be a human right and therefore not simply to be traded in a marketplace.
If something is deemed to be a human right – and to my mind access to clean water and good sanitation certainly is – we must decide whether to fund it through central taxation, or through user charges, or through a combination of both. Also, do we deliver it through a national utility, or through some other model?
Here’s the problem. Our water and waste water services are not fit for purpose.
Almost 50 per cent of our expensively treated clean water leaks from faulty pipes before it gets to our taps. There are still 6,000 people in Roscommon who still have to boil their water before drinking it for fear of being poisoned. There are 121 water treatment plants serving nearly one million people which need major upgrading to avoid the risk of contamination. More than one in every three of our waste water treatment plants is not big enough. Dublin has just 2 per cent spare capacity, and demand for water in Dublin is forecast to increase by 50 per cent by 2050. Water shortages in Dublin recently cost over €78m per day. Two-thirds of the sewer network needs repair.
There’s more. Ireland has received a “Letter Of Formal Notice” from the European Court of Justice for continuously and systematically pumping raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and beaches at 44 locations. They are pursuing Ireland – trying to force us to clean and protect our own natural environment.
The work we are undertaking to deal with these issues costs a lot more than it should. This is a direct result of our history of delivering water services in a dispersed way through 31 different local authorities. It makes no sense in a country the size of Ireland to have 31 different agencies delivering this critical infrastructure and services.
I am an engineer with 30 years’ experience in utilities so I can diagnose the problem and our engineers in Ervia/Irish Water can and have defined the engineering solution. But it is Government policy that provides the framework to deliver the solution, and policy-making is not what I do.
I can set out the policy issues at stake here. One is how do we pay to put this right? In every OECD country – from Germany to Greece — water services are paid for partly by public funding, and partly by water charges levied on households. Nobody in those countries objects particularly strongly, nor do they claim that they pay for water twice. The model recently introduced in Ireland is therefore nothing unusual or out of step.
However the timing of the move towards introducing water charges in Ireland was a problem. Coming at a time of austerity it was easy to depict water charges as a by-product of austerity, just another tax imposed on a weary population. They aren’t.
Since January 2014 we have developed a seven year plan to put things right. It says that by 2021 we will invest €5.5bn in water services, eliminate all boil water notices, ensure no waste water is discharged without treatment, reduce leakage from 50% to 38%, improve water supply capacity for all major urban centres to international standards, upgrade 121 water plants supplying over 1 million people to eliminate contamination risk, eliminate the lead threat for over 100,000 people.
The plan seeks to do in seven years what has taken almost 20 years for others. But we have not been investing efficiently or sufficiently in our water services. When people say we are paying twice, the reality is we have not even been paying once.
The engineering and utility solutions must have political and public support. Some sections of the public remain sceptical about the current solution, and some political voices are totally dismissive of it. Some don’t believe there is a problem in our water services at all, don’t think we need a national solution, don’t believe it requires higher funding, and certainly don’t believe any part of the cost of providing water should be paid for directly by the people who use it.
Our €5.5 billion programme of investment is a nationally vital project designed to give Ireland a safe, world-class supply of a product even more basic than electricity – clean water and efficient sanitation. This is an issue that impacts our economic and social development as a nation for today and for future generations... We believe strongly we have the engineering solution, but we urgently need wide political consensus around the framework to implement it.
Michael McNicholas is Group Chief Executive of Ervia, the parent company of Irish Water. The above is an edited version of a talk he gave at the MacGill Summer School this week