Muddying the water

 

THERE HAS been a deafening silence from Government on the progress being made in relation to water charges and metering since the job of running Irish Water was awarded to Bord Gáis last month. That is hardly surprising because opponents of the fiscal treaty have been promoting a No vote on Thursday in response to pending water and septic tank charges. The issue encapsulates much of what is wrong in Irish politics: an unwillingness to be upfront with the electorate on one hand; populism and opportunism on the other.

The temptation to use water charges as a political football could undermine the establishment of a fair and effective water service in Ireland, according to a senior Dutch expert. Speaking at an environmental conference in Brussels last week, David Zetland warned that political pressure could keep prices artificially low and cause long-term damage to the service. He believed politicians should stay out of water policy.

In much the same vein, another expert said consumers needed to recognise they were paying for the service of producing and delivering safe drinking water and not just for water itself. It is a concept alien to some Irish politicians and voters who appear to think that rain reappears, by magic, when they turn on a tap. The in-between processes and costs are blanked out. That kind of wilful amnesia led to water charges being abolished here in 1996. The decision led to an under-funding of local services; a rising incidence of water-related illnesses and huge leakage problems, all of which now have to be addressed.

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen tweaked the Government’s tail in the Dáil when he asked the Tánaiste when the promised 2,000 meter-installing jobs would materialise. Mr Gilmore opted not to frighten voters. First, Irish Water had to be set up through Bord Gáis, he said, and then it would decide how metering would take place. With the referendum days away, the reply was so vague it seemed that planning to meet EU-IMF commitments had gone backwards. A month earlier, ministerial colleague Phil Hogan had been able to confirm that metering would begin next October and that 90-95 per cent of meters would be installed by the end of 2014.

One of the key messages from the Brussels conference was that the costs of water must be transparent and understood by policymakers and the public if charges are to work. A great deal of work remains to be done in that regard.

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