‘Water Charges Can’t Fix Our Broken System’

Extreme weather events such as ‘The Beast from the East’ have caused many to show concern for Ireland’s water infrastructure, Sami El-Sayed explains that Water Charges cannot save a failing infrastructure.

Despite having been decisively beaten on the question of water charges since the movement erupted, right wing pundits have breathlessly took to the media to revive the issue once again. What’s spawned this renewed interest in our water supply?

After Ireland was hit with the “Beast from the East” in early March, Irish Water notified the public that there was a critical water supply shortage and that restrictions on usage would be implemented in Dublin for the foreseeable future.

Not being the kind to let a good crisis go to waste, academic figures such as Eoin O’Malley and Ronan Lyons began to decry the lack of water charges, saying that if such a system was implemented then people would not frivolously waste water. Both referred to the same RTÉ article published 5 March.


The problems

There are a few fundamental issues with what their arguments, which can only be described as poorly thought out. To really get to the root of it, we need to break down the statements into their constituent parts – what is being claimed?

Firstly, that the water shortage in Dublin is due to excessive consumption of water on the consumer end, and that the lack of water charges has exacerbated this problem by allowing people to run their taps without consequence.

This claim is easily debunked. Going from the article that both of these academics shared (But apparently did not read), the 10% increase in water usage has come primarily from broken pipes – that is, not consumer usage, which decisively disproves that line of argument. To pin the current water shortage in Dublin as being a result of excessive water consumption is an argument made entirely without substance.

The second claim is that the implementation of water charges would have somehow prevented this issue, creating the revenue necessary to invest in infrastructure.

Ignoring the fact that had everyone paid the water charges, Irish Water would still be operating at a loss (That is, there would be no extra revenue to speak of), there are a few ways we can otherwise verify the accuracy of this. For example, we can look to other states in the developed world which have water charges, and see if they experience the same problems which we currently have – water shortages, poor infrastructure etc. A cursory look to the United Kingdom, which has a water charges system in place, reveals that they are also experiencing extremely similar problems. In both the cases of Ireland and the UK, the primary issue is a chronic lack of investment in water infrastructure – there’s nothing to indicate that the implementation of water charges in the UK has done anything to improve the situation on that front.

In fact, we don’t even need to look abroad to see a failure of this system. Both from 1985 to 1996, and prior to 1978, Ireland had some form of water charges system in place before social pressure forced their complete abolition. During the periods in which water charges were in place, chronic lack of investment in our water infrastructure prevailed regardless. It has never been a matter of if the resources actually existed or not – Ireland is extremely wealthy and we have the means of upgrading our infrastructure. It has always been a matter of who would pay – ordinary working class people through means of regressive consumption taxes, or the wealthy in the form of progressive general taxation?


A precious resource

Up until now, the Irish people have always chosen the latter option, when the choice was made available. The problem is not with the decision of the people, but with the fact that the political establishment refuses to recognise it. Lamenting the ignorance of the general public in its resistance to water charges, Kathy Sheridan in the Irish Times asked “What would it take to settle this debate?”

The answer is simple; Accept that you lost.

Water is a precious resource, and its waste is something that should be prevented as much as possible. The plain reality of the situation is that around half of the water lost in Ireland is due to leakage. Many have used and continue to use this as an argument for the wasteful exercise of installation of household water meters.

However, household meters are not required to find and repair leaks. Instead, an efficient and effective way to find significant leaks is through using what are known as District Meters – water meters which measure the usage of water over a given area, as opposed to on a household by household basis. Ireland already has a network of district meters installed, however around half of them are non-functional due to chronic lack of maintenance. Regardless, people would likely be open to a form of metering were it possible to trust the government to not use any form of metering scheme as a backdoor to a future implementation of water charges (In case it was ambiguous, the government does not have that trust).

The alternative

Gary Murphy described, in the Mail on Sunday, the approach taken by successive governments on the question as “a failure of political leadership”, with the so-called centrist parties unwilling to face down the “extreme left” on the issue. Murphy is quite correct, the parties of the establishment have been faced with defeat by the movement on the streets, lead by the “extreme” left, but is unable to stomach the alternative model. To properly fund our water infrastructure without laying another charge on top of people already tired from austerity and weary of economic precarity, the establishment must get the money necessary from the top layers of society, the “1%”.

Such a course of action is anathema to those in the “rational” center, and so the debate around water charges is revived time and time again. To those of the right wing eager to relive the water charges debate, save your breath – the people won, you lost, now take your medicine.