Why can’t we have a mature debate about water charges?

“I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall for three years trying to have an honest debate about water,” said David Gibney, Right2Water coordinator on RTE’s Late Debate programme last week. Yet this week, in spite of all of the international, national and local evidence, the false debate within the mainstream media continues.

In today’s Irish Independent, Paul Melia, environment editor, once again dons the pom-poms continuing his publication’s cheerleading of Irish Water and water charges.

“Anyone under the impression that scrapping water charges will not impact on public services is sorely mistaken,” he says. “There is a price to be paid – Irish Water is projected to collect around €275m this year and next year in domestic charges. That means less money for roads, schools, healthcare and other services,” adds Mr Melia.

By framing it in this manner, Paul Melia is hoping to portray himself and his publication as the responsible voice in the debate about water charges. To paraphrase, if you oppose water charges, you must want larger class sizes, worse roads, more people on hospital trolleys and potentially more homeless people.

And for good measure he adds, “The prospect of cuts in income tax rates for middle-income families will move further away as a result [of scrapping charges].” Don’t read the rest of today’s Irish Independent though, because it’s covered in articles advocating more tax cuts including a front page article, an analysis piece, an editorial and a letter to the editor.

Back to water though. Mr Melia omits to mention any and all costs associated with running a metered water charges regime, as if this income stream is pure and there are no outgoings.

For instance, so far it has cost €465m installing water meters for 58 percent of households. At least another €300m is needed to complete the metering programme. Mr Melia forgets that this is an ongoing cost with meters to be maintained and repaired on a constant basis and then replaced every 5-10 years. In fact, with some meters in the ground four years now, it’s nearly time to start replacing them with a conservative estimate of €50m spent every year on replacement. Bizarrely, when Right2Water asked a number of members on the Oireachtas Water Committee if it was known how much the metering programme would cost on an ongoing basis, we were told, no. That had never been discussed.

Then there’s the other costs. Consultant fees (€90m), postage costs of €6m per year, legal costs of more than €5m, costs for running call centres and debt collection agencies of €54m per year, IBEC fees, among other outgoings.

Maybe the reason the outgoings are not mentioned is because the Irish Independent and almost all other major Irish media outlets are net beneficiaries of water charges and Irish Water with the quango spending in excess of €3million per year on advertising. And maybe that’s why we can’t have a mature conversation about water charges in the media? Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that a certain large shareholder in the media also has interests in installing water meters?

Anyway, all this isn’t new. Back in 2011 Gerry Concannon, senior water engineer warned the government that imposing a metered water system would double the cost of our water infrastructure from €350 per annum per domestic unit, to €700. Now who in their right mind would want to double the cost of the infrastructure for no benefit?

“But in the absence of a charge, what incentive is there to save water,” says Mr Melia, ever the responsible and reasonable adult. Except, he doesn’t provide any evidence to back up his contention that meters reduce consumption.

If water meters inevitably result in lower consumption rates, Ireland must be among the most profligate water users in the EU, right? After all, every other country has water charges in place for decades and Ireland is the outlier as the only country paying for water through general taxation.

Well the expert water commission, hand-picked by a Minister determined to impose water charges, looked into this and found that Ireland has among the lowest consumption rates in the EU. In fact, we use between 15-25% less than countries with a similar climate to us, including the United Kingdom. With evidence like that, if there was no profit motive involved, you’d think there’d be a big push for the rest of the EU to adopt the Irish method of paying for water.

But for those who still advocate water charges for “conservation” reasons, maybe they’d let us all know how much less water they want us to use? It would be great if we’re honest about it too, the evidence shows that the only people who will reduce consumption if water prices increase is low-income households. Those who can afford swimming pools can also afford a higher water bill.

Whenever you read an article in any of the Irish Water Fan Club publications, you’ll notice two words trotted out regularly; ‘polluter pays’. This, again, conveniently ignores the evidence.

“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, i.e. Irish domestic users are not polluters.

Where we do have a problem with pollution and what we do need to discuss is water usage in the commercial sector. For some reason, though, this was barred from discussion at the special Oireachtas Committee on Water. Interesting that, isn’t it?

Why has there been no outrage at the almost 50 percent of commercial companies who are refusing to pay their water bills? Surely if we’re talking about water conservation, asking those who use enormous amounts of water to make profits to simply pay their bills would be a good start? After all, the rest of us only use water to live and for sanitation purposes.

Why have we never read about the fact that Ireland does not have ‘abstraction charges’? How come Britvic, one of the largest bottled water companies in the world – floated on the London Stock Exchange and paying out dividends to shareholders every year while buying up other water companies around the world, can extract our natural spring water in limitless amounts and pay nothing to the exchequer, yet a lone-parent is expected to pay for the privilege of keeping her child healthy and clean?

The largest problem we have in relation to water is the 47 percent of water that is leaked before it gets to your home. When you consider households only use 10 percent of our water (including water abstracted), this would indicate that only 5 percent of the water we purify comes out the domestic tap.

Even if domestic metering were to reduce consumption by 10 percent (which it doesn’t), we would see a net reduction in water consumption of about 0.5 percent. Or, if you exclude water abstracted (which would ignore the EU’s WFD) the maximum net reduction in water usage would be in the region of 3%. And this is what the Irish Independent and others are advocating spending €300 million on rather than directing all funding towards upgrading the infrastructure and fixing the leaks.  

3 percent or 47 percent? Where would you focus your efforts with limited funding?

Mr Melia concludes his article by saying, “People will pay for water one way or another, either through a charge or general taxation. What is lacking in the debate is consultation with the wider public about what is the better way.”

It might be an idea for Paul Melia to google 'Right2Water National Demonstration'. We’ve had eight enormous demonstrations with 150 very large local demonstrations. The largest civil society group in Ireland, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, representing 600,000 workers has had the debate resulting in an official policy of scrapping the charges. The 2016 general election resulted in two thirds of the electorate voting for parties or independents opposed to the charges, backed up by the Irish Times MRBI poll which shows that 62 percent want water charges scrapped and only 34 percent want to keep them.

If Paul Melia or the Irish Independent don’t think there has been a public debate about water charges, they really need to step outside of their bubble. The problem isn’t that the wider public haven’t had a debate, it’s that the mainstream media have, for the most part, ignored the real debate or else demonised and ridiculed water protesters.

Apparently water protesters are ‘populist’, a threat to democracy, they’re the sinister fringe, the equivalent of ISIS, they’re irresponsible and they don’t want to pay for anything. In recent weeks we were told by Minister Denis Naughten that Irish people wouldn’t pay a euro for a washer. Pat Kenny reckons Irish people would stop using water in November if they are given an annual allowance, just so they wouldn’t have to pay. The sensationalism has been astounding. But when real experts on water emerge, silence. They get no coverage at all.

Contrast the coverage Bridget Laffan received when she came out in favour of water charges, or Colm McCarthy, with an environmental colossus like Maude Barlow.

The former ‘experts’ have no expertise of water beyond drinking it and washing in it, yet all were given massive coverage in Irish broadcast and print media.

Maude Barlow – author of four books, producer of a documentary on water, senior advisor on water to the 63rd President of the United Nations, lead advocate in the UN adopting a resolution on water being a human right, recipient of 12 honorary doctorates, recipient of the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Canadian Environment Award, Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award 2009, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco Hero Award and the 2011 EarthCare Award – visited Ireland twice in the last two years and not one media outlet interviews her.

Last week she and Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, issued a press release to the Irish media advocating general taxation as the most appropriate way to pay for water and again, nothing.

You’d have to wonder why we haven’t had a mature, honest debate about water in the media, until you remember that water is now the most profitable non-financial industry in the world returning three times the profits of oil or gas. Despite the restriction on the debate, Right2Water and water protesters have been consistent:

By addressing commercial charges, abstraction charges, along with a well-resourced educational campaign, incentivisation of water saving devices and a reduction of VAT for energy and water efficient devices like dishwashers and washing machines, Ireland can easily achieve the objectives of the Water Framework Directive, reduce consumption to the lowest in the developed world and save enormous costs for taxpayers. But then, that’s what we would do if this was simply about conservation.

NOTE: Right2Water will be hosting another national demonstration in Dublin on Saturday, 8th April 2017 - simply because the government refuse to abide by the democratic will of the Irish people. More details to follow.