Recent rain has drowned out the true cost of water


ANALYSIS:The economics behind Ireland’s water supply system simply no longer add up, writes DARA LYNOTT

ACCORDING TO Met Éireann, we had the highest rainfall last year at the Valentia observatory since observations began in 1866; November 2009 was the wettest November since records began at most stations and the wettest of any month on record in several places; this following a second extremely wet summer in a row.

So why are we heading into February with water shortages, and why are the letter pages of The Irish Times and others spilling over with the views of incredulous readers who are stunned that we are now short of water after rains and floods of almost biblical proportions in the last few months?

The view often taken is that if rain falls then it must automatically be available to drink. This is to misunderstand the true cost of delivering clean water to our homes.

What is the true cost of water? One measure of cost is how much we spend to maintain our supplies and keep up with demand. The Government investment in water services has increased by 54 per cent between 2004 and 2007 to €680 million per year. This significant investment continues to defy the downward trend of departmental budgets required in our economic reality.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has indicated this level of investment has to be maintained at a minimum to improve water quality in Ireland and particularly water derived from schemes that have been identified as having a problem in the annual EPA drinking water report.

Consider for a moment where our water comes from – or rather what it comes through. Our water network is some 44,000km long, and has been installed by thousands of people over 200 years using different construction materials before it was individually plumbed by hordes of builders into over 1.5 million homes.

This situation adds considerably to the cost of supplying water, where best practice would suggest that 10 per cent or 4,400km of pipe should be replaced annually.

Building infrastructure is only part of the picture – protecting our water supplies is the other major part.

Water must be protected at source from the millions of gallons of waste-water discharging from our cities and towns. Water must be protected from the vast amount of fertilisers, both artificial and natural, that are used to grow our grain, our trees and the grass needed to feed our animals that provide milk for our cereals and sausages for our breakfast.

Drinking water that is sourced from underneath the ground must be protected from the 400,000 septic tanks and other on-site systems that are located as sporadically as the one-off houses that we see in the countryside.

To make a water source safe, all the risks to water from catchment to consumer must be managed to avoid problems before they occur.

This requires effective monitoring and inspection of the source waters, managing and monitoring the processes at the drinking water plant and testing the treated water, all the way to the consumer’s tap.

Water is harvested from our lakes and rivers, and to a slightly lesser extent from waters below the ground. It must be pumped to a treatment plant where soil, sediment and the detritus are removed.

If the water is hard, it must be softened. If it is coloured it must be treated, and if it is contaminated, it must be disinfected, all prior to releasing it into our distribution network.

This level of treatment requires technology and the people to operate the technology, all of which is expensive. Yet the average commercial charge in Ireland’s five largest cities for drinking water was €1.67 for 1,000 litres – 49 per cent less than comparable European cities where 1,000 litres costs €3.24. The cost of the equivalent amount of bottled drinking water would be €3,000.

Local authority budgets will be cut this year as part of the general belt-tightening Ireland has to go through, and it is expected the belt will be pulled a few notches tighter in the coming few years. However, the ability of local authorities to demand an appropriate level of remuneration comparable with European norms will be severely curtailed by the current health of the retail and industrial sector.

The Commission on Taxation report published in 2009 struck a very environmental tone when it stated: “The difficulty with the current policy approach is that it does not give the appropriate signal to homeowners that water is a resource which is costly to treat for drinking, and even more costly to treat as waste water, before it can be released back into the environment.”

The December-January cold snap has contributed to the shortage of water as a result of increased leaks arising in our distribution network. The question has to be asked: would so many people have followed the advice of insurance companies during the cold weather to keep taps running to avoid freezing if the true cost of water was paid for?

Indeed, would the insurance companies have offered such advice if the true cost of the additional water used could be recouped from the same insurance companies?

Until the true cost of water is factored into our economy, we will continue to misunderstand the reasons why we do not have the quality and quantity of drinking water we look for – or in other words, the best drinking water that money can buy.

Dara Lynott is director of environmental enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency

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