The publication of the report by the ‘Expert Commission’ on water has vindicated everything the Right2Water campaign has been saying for almost three years. Water should be paid for through general taxation which is the most socially equitable, economically beneficial and environmentally sound.
Frustratingly, had an arrogant government and media listened to our campaign and people in communities across this country, we would not have wasted €1 billion on water meters and establishing Irish Water as a commercial entity. Even Engineers Ireland warned the government back in 2010 that bringing in water charges would mean "spending €1bn of money we don’t have on something we don’t need.”
The key findings of the report include:
- That Irish people already pay for their water through taxation and that “water funded through general taxation is not free but paid for by the taxpayer.”
- Access to adequate clean water for living requirements should not be determined by affordability.
- A referendum is necessary to protect our public water system from privatisation.
- Ireland has one of the highest rates of water availability in the world, with water availability per person four times higher than France and fifty times higher than Israel.
- “The expert commission has not seen any evidence that Ireland has particularly high levels of domestic water usage” and Irish people are at the ‘lower end of the spectrum’ when it comes to comparing water usage among other European countries.
- Irish people use between 15-25 percent less water than the UK, where water charges have been in place since 1989.
- Water charges do not result in water conservation unless they include education and information. Therefore, it can be established that it is education and information which results in water conservation, not the charges.
- Commercial companies are not paying their water bills with almost half refusing to pay. Ensuring a comprehensive commercial water charges regime should reduce dependence on general taxation.
- There are ‘no abstraction charges’ for our natural spring water on private companies like Britvic (Ballygowan) who pay nothing when bottling our natural spring water for profit. This should be ‘addressed.’
- Metering should only be done on an optional basis.
- Group schemes should have an allowance in order to create equity.
- There is a need for investment of €5.5bn in our infrastructure by 2021.
- The water charges regime does not have political support or popular acceptance.
- Flat rate charges are regressive and do not address the issue of conservation. Also, a water charge added to a property tax leads to “unfairness in the system.”
- The water charges regime was intended to reduce household consumption of water by a mere 6%, yet the system leaks 41% of all treated water. The best way to reduce waste is to fix the leaks.
- “While considerable weight must be given to the opinion of the European Commission, the definitive interpretation of European law is a matter for the Court of Justice of the European Union.”
Importantly, the Commission states that because the funding of domestic water should come from general taxation in public ownership, it will no longer achieve the ‘off balance sheet’ exercise. This will reduce or potentially eliminate the need for ‘borrowing’ which inevitably leads to debt and the servicing of that debt by households – diverting money directly into the financial services sector instead of the water infrastructure.
The report says that there are 7% of households using six times more water than the average household, although Irish Water have indicated that customer-side leaks contribute to this anomaly. However, it is estimated that up to 97% of leaks do not come from the household side of the infrastructure and the report states “it should be noted that water leaks waste not only water but also energy and public money.” Therefore, it makes sense to divert all money from the domestic metering programme towards a district metering programme as recommended in the report.
The ‘Expert Commission” has suggested that where water is used at a level above what is necessary for normal domestic purposes, that the user should pay for this through tariffs. The suggestion is that an allowance is determined and this allowance could be “regularly reviewed and, if necessary, adjusted to reflect changes in water use patterns in Ireland.”
As stated earlier, the evidence provided shows that Irish people are not profligate with their water and in fact use less water than almost any other country in the Europe despite having more water available to us.
There are also very serious concerns about any allowances being eroded over time, like bin charges.
Therefore, continuing an expensive water metering programme with the added costs of highly paid consultants, advertising, postage, call centres and other costs, for no conservational benefit would be an extraordinary waste of valuable resources, costing up to €300m per year and returning potentially nothing.
The government and the Oireachtas sub-committee should accept the will of the electorate – two thirds of whom voted for parties and individuals who promised abolition. This is now also backed up by an Irish Times MRBI poll which also says two thirds of the population want to scrap the charges.
With all of this in mind, it is essential that water charges are abolished outright.
In addressing the funding of water services, the Commission suggests that the funding requirements which were to be allocated through domestic water charges are now made through the “exchequer rather than by householders directly.”
The current government and the previous government must take responsibility for the leakages and deteriorated infrastructure that Irish people currently have to rely on. In the last three Budget’s alone, tax cuts of €2.9 billion have been implemented. The beneficiaries of those tax cuts are the top 20% of earners and also employers. In ensuring our water system is fit for purpose, the government should immediately:
- Cease all cuts to progressive taxation.
- Stop the metering programme and wasting money on the vanity project that is Irish Water.
- Increase taxation revenue by implementing the Fiscal Framework Document set out by the Right2Water Trade Unions in 2015 – which could raise up to €10 billion. This would not only fix and upgrade the water infrastructure, but could also address our housing and homelessness crisis, along with our healthcare, education and other underfunded public services.
It is felt that the majority of the Irish media failed in their duty to facilitate an honest and democratic debate about the Irish government’s water policy.
While a number of trade unions, political representatives and community groups were attempting to raise real and valid issues in relation to water charges and their implications locally, nationally and internationally, a compliant media refused to accept the arguments put forward and even refused to allow a debate to ensue.
Even now, faced with all of the evidence which shows that Ireland is a water rich country and that Irish people do not waste water, many media outlets refuse to accept the fact that water charges are economically inefficient, they’re environmentally unsound and socially destructive.
Furthermore, protesters were and continue to be demonised and vilified for their stance on water charges, yet this report now vindicates what they have said all along: that paying for water through progressive general taxation is the fairest and most equitable method possible.
As Maude Barlow, environmentalist and expert on water from the Blue Planet Project and the Council of Canadians said, “The Irish system of paying for water and sanitation services through progressive taxation and non-domestic user fees is an exemplary model of fair, equitable and sustainable service delivery for the entire world.”
Right2Water remains committed to its stated objective of the abolition of water charges and Irish Water.