Noel Dempsey: Safe drinking water requires a national utility

Principle of investment to ensure a first- class infrastructure should not be abandoned

There’s a small town in Westmeath called Fore where locals say there are seven wonders; one of which is a river that flows uphill.

There is of course a rational explanation for each of these wonders. Unfortunately, water in Ireland has become so politicised that a rational discussion about how we provide safe water to our citizens would be in itself a miracle.

We are now facing a situation where another generation will suffer inadequate infrastructure and unsafe water. A national utility is the only entity that can deliver the water system we deserve.

I was the minister who negotiated the EU Water Framework Directive for Ireland. I opposed the compulsory imposition of water charges on Ireland for two reasons:

  • I believed that subsidiarity should apply in this case, iewe should make that decision ourselves;
  • Fianna Fáil had an anti-water charges position in the 1997 election.

My opposition led to what is called the “Ireland clause” in Article 9.4 of the directive. It allowed member states to “opt out of this obligation when it is not in accordance with established national practice”. It meant that because we did not have water charges we did not have to impose them. I was in a minority of one on the issue as all other member states had water charges.

My personal opinion now and at the time was that Ireland should have a world-class water infrastructure. Water charges for such a system to me seemed justified and inevitable.

Charging for water has always been a political football. In 1983 the Labour-Fine Gael coalition legislated to allow councils to charge for water. Gradually most local authorities introduced them after politically charged debates and anti-charges campaigns. By the early 1990s, the matter was settled everywhere except Dublin.

When charges were introduced in the city the anti-charges campaign started afresh and was championed by Independent Joe Higgins. When he nearly won a seat in the Brian Lenihan byelection, Labour panicked and introduced legislation a month before the 1997 general election to abolish them. It didn't prevent Joe from being elected.

The grounds for opposition in Dublin were remarkably like the current ones. Opponents at that time said it was double taxation, not related to consumption and did not take account of ability to pay.

Treatment capacity

As minister for environment from 1997-2002, I almost doubled expenditure on water and waste water facilities. Treatment capacity increased fivefold, pumping capacity threefold, and storage capacity nearly fourfold.

Unfortunately, following the initial capital investment from the Department there was little investment from hard-pressed local authorities for upkeep and maintenance – responsibility for water and waste water infrastructure rested with 31 different authorities.

As a result, up to recently the drinking water of more than 700,000 customers was at risk of contamination. Nearly 50 per cent of all drinking water is lost through leaks. In 2014 at least 23,000 people still had to boil water before they could drink it. An estimated 180,000 properties were at risk of not meeting the EU guideline on the maximum levels of lead in drinking water. This is unacceptable in a modern society.

I have long been a supporter of local democracy and local government, but it is clear that trying to deliver such an important service through 31 separate authorities is inefficient, ineffective and lacks any strategic direction. The duplication results in exorbitant operating costs, double that of an equivalent UK area.

Irish Water is the only game in town in relation to delivering quality water – primarily because so much investment has been put in place, with some significant achievements, that turning back now is neither cost-effective nor desirable.

The value of having a national body to oversee the strategic development of our water services is obvious. For the first time ever we now know the cost of bringing the service up to an acceptable standard nationally is €13 billion.

The suggestion of a body similar to the NRA to deliver our water services has merit but it is not the correct model for a public utility. It would still require 31 authorities to deliver the service.

An agency would also struggle to fund its plans. The NRA could not get sufficient money to fund roads during the recession but a utility can use its leverage to source funds independently of government. ESB and Gas Networks are examples of what is possible with the utility model.

Significant progress

Irish Water is not perfect as an organisation but it has made significant progress, fixing some of the worst of the problems, capturing the data to assess the scale of the investment challenge, taking a long-term national approach to planning and starting to deliver savings and efficiencies.

There are 300,000 people whose water is no longer at risk. About 20,0000 customers have had “boil notices” removed and can drink their water. About 32 million litres of water is now being saved every day and a similar amount is being saved in distribution.

At least 500km of the worst-performing water mains have been replaced. There is now a plan to deal with lead pipes.

There are a substantial number of meters installed, enabling the utility to accurately gauge usage per household, a reasonable allowance per adult, a reasonable allowance per child. It is also possible to devise an income threshold below which further exemptions could be given to recognise ability to pay issues.

While Irish Water made many mistakes and were forced by government pressures into indefensible positions but abolishing it means we wouldn’t even get back to square one for a generation.

The principle of paying for a service to prevent waste, conserve a vital asset and accelerate investment to ensure a first- class infrastructure for a first-world country should not be abandoned.

Noel Dempsey is a former minister for the environment