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The truth about water metering and charges

The cloak and dagger tactics employed by Irish Water to garner media publicity for the installation of its ‘first domestic water meter’ on Thursday of last week is an unconscious admission that the imposition of a new water tax will face huge opposition around the country.

As if arranging a Cold War spy exchange, Irish Water officials instructed journalists, photographers and camera crews to meet them at the Glenroyal Hotel in Maynooth, Co Kildare, then packed them into a minibus but refused to reveal the secret location to which they were headed. Not having gone as far as blacking out the vehicle’s windows however, the mystified media entourage was able to ascertain that they arrived at a house in a ‘leafy’ estate called Rockfield.

This was an extraordinary start to what the Chief Executive Officer of Irish Water John Tierney proclaimed as a ‘significant’ and ‘historic’ occasion. Obviously Mr Tierney and his fellow bureaucrats believed that not too many residents of Co. Kildare would share his assessment of the event as historic and feared an embarrassing intrusion of protesting taxpayers had their plans been known in advance. As we will see spending €539 million on this water metering programme should be classed as ‘outrageous’ not ‘historic’.

The media event certainly provided many photographs of the water meter in question but regrettably the accompanying articles did not include a critique of the claims made for the economic benefits of this programme. The truth is that this national rollout of 1.1 million water meters is being pushed under cover of false claims that disguise the real reasons for it. It will not result in a decisive saving of treated water as claimed by its advocates but alternative ways of investing this huge amount of money could make a massive difference.

In a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment over a year ago and using figures from official reports, the former Treasurer of the Dublin Anti Water Charges Campaign in the ’90s, Mick Murphy, decisively demolishes the arguments made for domestic metering.

Currently, the metered water usage in the United Kingdom is 141 litres per person per day (l/p/d) while the usage in the greater Dublin Region which takes in some neighbouring counties and where there is no metering, is 147 l/p/d. The UK water authorities have set a target for the year 2030 of 136 litres l/p/d when meter installation is expected to be completed and this is considered to be the optimum achievable. If personal usage in Dublin and nationally was reduced by 11 litres per day or 7.5%, we would achieve that optimum.

There are many ways other than metering and taxing water to our homes to achieve this reduction. Changing the planning codes to oblige developers to have water saving devices such as dual flush toilets and rainwater harvesting integrated into each new house together with a retrofit programme for existing housing stock would make a significant saving along with public education and awareness programmes to make people conservation conscious.

However, here is the crucial fact. Even if there were no other way to reduce that 11 litre difference except by metering, that would not economically justify the current installation programme. The reason is that domestic water usage in Ireland accounts for only 40%, or one seventh, of the total water generated in the system.  Reducing home consumption by 11 litres per person per day (that is by 7.5% of 40%) would give a saving of only 3% of all water generated. But an incredible 40% of treated water outside the Dublin Region and 28% within, is unaccounted for, which means it leaks into the ground due to the inadequate piping and distribution infrastructure.

A massive €539 million is earmarked for the current domestic metering. By contrast in the three years 2007, 2008 and 2009 a total of €280 million was devoted to tackling the leakage situation. Previous to that in the Dublin Region, from 1996 to 2002, an effective programme of leakage repair reduced the wasted water from 42% of the total generated to 28% – a very significant saving of 14%. Isn’t it blindingly obvious then that the €539 should instead be put into water infrastructure rehabilitation programmes nationally rather than devoting it to a project that would yield at most a saving of 1.2% of total water generated but which in any case can be achieved by other means?

The real Fine Gael / Labour agenda is to extract a major new austerity / bailout tax from ordinary taxpayers and at the same time set the water supply infrastructure up as a commodity that can be privatised and handed over to big business exactly as happened with the domestic refuse collection services. That is why this metering programme and new water taxes should be vehemently resisted.

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