Internationally renowned environmentalists urge water committee to end domestic water charges

Two of the worlds most prominent environmentalists and leading experts on water have written to Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan, member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Water, urging her not to support metered charges for so-called ‘excessive use’.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project, wrote to Senator O’Sullivan stating:

“Access to clean, safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are fundamental human rights that are essential for human health, dignity and well-being. As many countries fall short of their obligations to ensure that this right is enjoyed by all segments of the population, Ireland has successfully maintained universal coverage through central taxation and non-domestic usage fees. I am writing to urge you not to jeopardize this successful model that serves as an example to the rest of the world by introducing metered user fees.”

She added, “There is very little evidence that the introduction of metered water charges will serve any benefit to the environment, yet the potential social and public health costs of restricting access to more marginalized segments of the population are very high.”

Ms Barlow explained that water pricing has no effect on high-income households but results in low-income families limiting their water for essential use.

“When policies restricting access to domestic water result in lower consumption rates, this is generally because they force lower income households to limit water consumption for essential use. Higher income households, more inclined to use water for non-essential purposes (such as swimming pools), are less likely to adjust behaviour and more likely to pay higher rates to maintain their lifestyles.”

She pointed out that funding should be directed where it is needed most:

“In Ireland, simply fixing leaky pipes can halve water consumption.”

She added, “Metering brings with it an administrative burden and costs related to maintenance, monitoring and collection. This would take away public funds that could otherwise be invested in maintaining and improving the system.”

Ms Barlow concluded by citing last years election results and public polling which both show two thirds of the population oppose water charges:

“The people of Ireland have a right to have a say in the kind of water and sanitation system they desire. The large demonstrations against metering and public polling so far have shown strong public opposition to the proposal. 

“I support the Right2Water Campaign in its call for the abolition of water meters and I urge you to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence against metering as well as the will of the people.

Wenonah Hauter, founder and Executive Director of Washington based Food & Water Watch wrote to Senator O’Sullivan saying:

“Metering and water pricing, the policies that many economists have advocated for encouraging conservation, is a wrong minded strategy.”

She explained how a market oriented pricing system does not work in reality:

“This market-oriented pricing reform is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that households can or will reduce water use when faced with metering and higher prices. However, residential water use is a small fraction of water withdrawals and even draconian water price increases will have little impact on household water consumption. For most households, water goes towards essential uses like drinking, cooking and sanitation; consumer demand for water does not really change, regardless of price. Economists call this price inelasticity. Consumers will not drink twice as much water if the price of water falls by half, nor will they reduce the amount of water they drink by half if the price of water doubles. A Food & Water Watch review of the economic literature found only a very modest consumer response to rising water prices. Households generally reduce water use slightly in the face of even steep price increases.”

She added, “Addressing conservation should be part of an integrated water strategy. Any water policy must be tailored to local conditions and address both residential and industrial use. Focusing solely on metering and water pricing as the mechanisms for managing demand is unfair to ratepayers and doomed to be ineffective.”

Ms Hauter concluded by saying, “Water conservation can be best achieved through restoring aging and leaking infrastructure. Repairing and updating water infrastructure should be paid for out of public funds that are collected from a progressive tax system, not from metering and pricing water.”

Right2Water Coordinator David Gibney said the vast experience and expertise of Maude Barlow and Wenonah Hauter must be heeded by the water committee.

“There is only one reason to pursue a metering programme for so-called ‘excessive use’ of water, and that’s future privatization,” said Mr Gibney.

“Why would any responsible politician want to spend up to €300 million every year on a metering programme for ‘excessive usage’ charges – only to get a maximum €30 million back? It makes no economic sense.”

He added, “The experts all agree, metered charges have very little impact on water consumption levels. In fact, Irish people use 25% less water than countries like the UK who have had metered charges in place for decades, and we remain among the lowest water consumers in the developed world.”

Brendan Ogle, Right2Water spokesperson said, “Households use a fraction of our water and the Expert Commission found no material household waste apart from the significant leaks in the infrastructure. Conducting a public debate on the basis of 'swimming pools' is absurd, but a simple swimming pool tax would address any perceived issue of excess use in that regard.”

Mr Ogle concluded, “The Expert Commission on water pointed out that up to 47% of all water is leaked before it gets to households. Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of euros on a metering programme that will have very little impact on consumption levels, the money should be redirected towards fixing the leaks where the real problem with our water infrastructure lies.”



Maude Barlow is author of Blue Gold, Blue Planet, Blue Future and Blue Covenant. She was Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly and was the leading activist to have water recognized as a human right at the UN in 2010. Maude is the Recipient of 12 honorary doctorates and has received the Lifetime Achievement 2008 Canadian Environment Award, the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco Hero Award and the 2011 EarthCare Award, the highest international honour of the Sierra Club (U.S.).

Wenonah Hauter is the founder and Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers.

From 1997 to 2005 she served as Director of Public Citizen’s Energy and Environment Program, which focused on water, food and energy policy. From 1996 to 1997, she was environmental policy director for Citizen Action, where she worked with the organization’s 30 state-based groups. From 1989 to 1995 she was at the Union of Concerned Scientists where, as a senior organizer, she coordinated broad-based, grassroots sustainable energy campaigns in several states. She has an M.S. in applied anthropology from the University of Maryland.

Read Maud Barlow's letter here PDF icon BPP-Grace OSullivan-March 6-17.pdf

Read Wenonah Huter's letter here PDF icon FWW-Letter.pdf