Water Services Bill


One of the few services we should be able to take for granted is a supply of safe drinking water. Unfortunately, that does not apply in many parts of Ireland. Angry citizens have taken to the streets in Galway in protest against an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis. The Government is to blame. Evidence of its incompetence can be found in the Water Services Bill, 2003, which finally comes before the Dáil tomorrow. Had that legislation been passed on time and implemented effectively, people would not now have to boil their drinking water.

These problems are not new. Before the last general election, the Government was prosecuted before the European Court of Justice for failing to ensure a supply of safe drinking water. As a result, legislation was introduced to develop "a modern and progressive approach to the sustainable management of water services". The Bill was designed to provide for the establishment of new sanitary authorities with increased powers from January 1st , 2004. The Minister for the Environment was to be given over-riding responsibility. A new licensing and regulatory framework would cover group water supply schemes. The discharge of sewage would be tightly regulated. Then, having demonstrated a willingness to meet its legal obligations, the legislation was long-fingered.

Action is only now being taken because of renewed pressure from the European Commission. Last month, it issued a final warning notice to the Government to implement drinking water standards and upgrade sewage works or face heavy fines. As a result, the Bill is being processed in the dying days of the 29th Dáil. But it will take much more than that for the Minister for the Environment to regain credibility with consumers and for proper water standards to be met.

Evasion of responsibility has been a defining feature of this Government. Mr Roche is not an exception. The Bill requires a Minister to provide "safe and efficient" water services. But reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in recent years have pointed to gross failures in the supply of safe drinking water and the treatment of urban sewage. Many of the country's 5,500 group water schemes are not disinfected. Raw sewage is being pumped into rivers and estuaries. An outbreak of cryptosporidiosis, in the absence of effective water purification methods, was the inevitable result. The people of Galway, both city and county, have good reason to be angry. And because one in five public water supply schemes is operating under conditions of high risk, the rest of us have cause to be worried. This is an election issue.