Metering is part of prudent plan that will hold water

 

OPINION: Water is a very valuable commodity. Minimising leakage and charging for use above a certain level are vital parts of its timely conservation

THERE HAS been a lot of speculation over the last few days on if, when or how domestic water charges will be introduced. Will it be by flat fee or water metering? What level will the free water allowance be? What exactly are the obligations in these areas under the existing agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund?

While these are legitimate questions, it is important to take a step back and consider why we need to change the way we fund water services.

Ireland has a fragmented, inefficient and outdated water supply system. Providing water and waste water services costs over €1 billion a year. Our current model of water provision, where unlimited quantities of an expensive product are provided at no charge, is simply not sustainable.

The previous government’s approach was to throw money at the problem instead of analysing what was wrong with the system and coming up with a long-term solution to fix it. I am not willing to take that same approach. Instead, this Government will radically shake up the entire system to ensure we have a dependable, clean and cost-effective water supply for everyone.

Water metering is essentially a conservation measure: we must think of water as a finite resource which we cannot squander and waste at will. Water must, however, also be paid for and this is a fact we must deal with. At present, the exchequer funds the domestic element but this makes the rest of us forget that water is a valuable resource – and has resulted in a steady increase in unnecessary water consumption.

Every other country in the EU encourages better use of water by applying a fair cost to the provision of this natural resource. This approach leads the consumer to use less, which benefits the environment and reduces the need to treat as much water in the first place thus reducing costs. In Denmark, a reduction of 12.6 per cent in household consumption was achieved following the introduction of water meters.

Currently, Ireland’s 34 local authorities are responsible for the management of water infrastructure. Government is committed to establishing a new State-owned water company, Irish Water, which will deliver key water investment functions at a national level. This move will lead to improved service delivery and cost efficiency associated with water provision. This national approach to water investment and management has already been endorsed by John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute and by the OECD.

The IMF and the EU agreement includes the establishment of such an approach.

The programme for government commits us to the installation of a water metering programme which will allow the consumer to pay for the water they use above a generous free allowance. The rollout of water meters will start in 2012. I believe the domestic water metering programme will facilitate the introduction of a fair charging model and will also help us to conserve what is an increasingly expensive resource. Many thousands of households, mainly in rural areas, have been providing and paying for their own water for many years, through community-based group water schemes or their own privately sourced wells. So this is not a new concept for many Irish households.

There has been justifiable criticism of the levels of unaccounted-for water recorded in Ireland. Much of this is caused by leakage from antiquated and broken water mains. We have a very diverse water supply system, with over 950 public supplies producing some 1,600 million litres of water daily through a network of 15,000 miles (25,000km) of pipes. The extent of burst water mains places a particular focus on the vulnerability of the Irish water distribution system, especially given its age. We cannot continue to tolerate a situation which allows such high volumes of water, treated to a high-quality standard at great expense, to be unaccounted for. Against this backdrop, I am not surprised some people take the view that the focus should be on plugging leaking local authority pipes rather than metering households. I don’t believe that it is one choice or the other; the two must be progressed together. And that is my intention.

Our plan for the water network is a central part of our “NewERA” strategy for vital investment in Ireland’s creaking infrastructure. A greater proportion of investment under my department’s water services investment programme 2010-2012 will be dedicated to improving water supply infrastructure, with water conservation being accorded top priority. The programme sets out an expanded investment in fixing the broken infrastructure, with contracts valued at €320 million set to commence over the period of the programme. That is double the level of expenditure on water conservation measures in the previous decade.

This new strategy is a great opportunity to develop a new water conservation industry, creating significant employment opportunities. There is no reason why water should not be collected and used in the same fashion as electricity is captured from wind or the sun. Businesses can and do save thousands on their annual water bills with conservation measures and the right technology. I am considering introducing building regulations so that new structures will use more collected rainwater and treated grey water for suitable uses such as flushing toilets and wash-up facilities.

It is rather ironic that, last week, the first week of summer, we saw Dublin City Council issue warnings about water shortages over the summer months and urging people to conserve water. Our plan is a prudent approach that will protect water supplies and ensure that every citizen has access to good quality drinking water all year round. A country like Ireland doesn’t need to suffer water shortages and people shouldn’t have to buy drinking water in the shops. The time for radical change in our approach is here.


Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government

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