Democracy demands an end of water charges and Irish Water

MORE than 90 TDs campaigned for the end of water charges ahead of the recent election and were elected on that basis. If Ireland had a fully functioning democracy, water charges would already be gone – along with Irish Water.

In fact, they would never have been introduced in the first place considering the Labour Party campaigned against them ahead of the 2011 election. Instead of accepting the democratic will of the electorate, the government has fudged the issue, instigating an 'expert commission' on water services. Not surprisingly, the members of this commission have been hand-picked by a Minister in favour of water charges and with the terms of reference skewed in favour of domestic water charges rather than funding through taxation, it's safe to say the outcome will be entirely predictable.

For two years now water charges have been the biggest issue with the electorate, but have been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

The Right2Water campaign hosted seven of the largest demonstrations in the history of the State receiving tokenistic coverage. The campaign has tried to have a real conversation about our country’s water policy but almost everyone refused to have that honest debate.

In the Oireachtas, the Government guillotined the legislation in relation to water charges and Irish Water, refusing to debate the policy. This in itself shows the anti-democratic nature of our national parliament.

In February 2016, Right2Water flew Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, co-founder of the Blue Planet Project and the world’s leading expert on water policies, to Ireland.

She is a climate change and conservation activist and has written 17 books, including Blue Gold, Blue Covenant and Blue Future, all about the water industry. Not one media outlet felt she deserved to be interviewed on water as a policy.

Now we hear hysterics from misinformed politicians, right-wing economists, media presenters, columnists and other contributors about how we need to have water charges. That’s simply not true. Water charges are economically inefficient, environmentally unsound and socially destructive.

All of the international evidence shows that water charges do not reduce consumption levels. Irish people use 20% less water than those in the UK, where water charges are already in place.

A SIPTU report from 2011 stated: “…in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands it has been found that metering each home makes little difference to the amount of water used by families. Researchers have found that while consumption dropped initially following the installation of meters, after a relatively short time this was more or less reversed with families returning to the pre-metered level of consumption.”

It is estimated that Irish Water would be spending €2.6 billion on installing, maintaining, administrating and replacing water meters over the next five years without any conservational benefit. In Right2Water, we believe that €2.6bn would be better spent on fixing the leaks and upgrading the infrastructure. We also believe that households should be incentivised to purchase water conservation devices.

Having said that, this policy was never about conservation. It was always about privatisation.

If it weren’t, then why wouldn’t the government offer a constitutional referendum to enshrine ownership in the hands of the public? That could have made the issue ‘go away’, but they stubbornly refused and instead sacrificed 50% of their TDs – with the Labour Party losing 81% of their seats. Furthermore, the past two governments reduced funding for our water services by 65% – directly leading to leaks. How is that being conservation-conscious?

The inconvenient truth is that water is now the most profitable industry in the world outside of financial services. In 2013, in Britain, private water companies made profits of €2.81bn and paid €2.55bn to shareholders while paying only €101m in taxes (3.5%). Seven water companies paid no corporation tax at all.

The dividends paid out to UK water companies are double that of your average non-financial company. As a result, there is almost no retained profit, which is usually used to upgrade infrastructure.

More than half of all water companies in the UK are owned by private equity consortiums – a group of High Net Worth Individuals who pool their money to strip profits from any industry they can get their hands on. The impact is that for every £100 spent on a water bill in the UK, between £15 and £30 goes directly to the companies' owners rather than the water system.

Then there are the social implications. The installation of meters and the commodification of water inevitably leads to water poverty. Ireland is the only country in the EU that does not have water poverty – and that’s how it should stay.

In the UK, parts of France, throughout Rome and in the US in cities such as Detroit, tens of thousands of families have had their water shut off for simply being unable to pay their bills.

The Detroit Water Brigade attended the Right2Water demonstration on December 10th 2014 and explained how tens of thousands of families are getting by with donations of water from neighbours. If you can’t pay your water bill and your water is shut off, the State can take any dependents – including children – off you. Your home automatically becomes condemnable. This is not the future we want for our country.

While the EU estimates that domestic households only use 10% of all water – with commercial companies and agriculture using 90% – the Government’s policy was to make households pay up to 78% of the costs. In the year Irish Water was to begin charging households, the original plan was to raise more than €300 million, and in Budget 2015, the Irish Government gave a €405 million tax break to the top 17% of earners. That’s not a coincidence.

While politicians and journalists were ignoring the debate being had in community centres, pubs and on the streets across the country, people were educating themselves and making the informed decision to vote out people who were in favour of water charges. Their democratic wishes should be vindicated by scrapping charges now and abolishing Irish Water. That’s the democratic will of the people.

Right2Water is hosting a National Demonstration on Saturday, 17th September in Dublin where once again we will be voicing our opposition to the anti-democratic imposition of water charges and demanding vindication of our human right to water. More information here.