Hugely controversial water charges must be reintroduced if we are to meet our climate targets, global economic think-tank the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned.
The Government has been told to reconsider domestic water charges as accelerated investment is needed to extend and upgrade the country’s water supply and sanitation infrastructure for a growing population and to reduce water loss.
Oppositions parties have reacted with fury to the suggestion that water levies, which were scrapped after a massive public backlash, should be reimposed.
Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said the OECD report highlights the inadequacies in this State’s water infrastructure, but warned the Government not to revisit the introduction of domestic water charges.
"A cross-party Oireachtas committee report assessed the funding model for water services and recommended that normal household usage should be paid for by the State in the form of general taxation," he said.
“The so-called ‘excessive use’ charge was adopted as a political fudge between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and would, in reality, cost more to administer than it would have brought in.
“Reigniting the domestic charge debate is a distraction and deflects from the failure of government to prioritise public spending in water infrastructure," said Mr Ó Broin.
Solidarity-PBP TD Paul Murphy said any attempt to bring water charges back in would be met with mass opposition.
“Fine Gael and Labour wasted hundreds of millions installing water meters - that was money which should have been invested in fixing our pipes and upgrading the water infrastructure. Rather than imposing more regressive austerity taxes, we should be taxing the super-rich to invest in a proper upgrading of our water network," he said.
The OECD said Ireland stands out, on the international stage, by not charging households for water usage and services. Ireland’s current model of the State financing the water sector “may not be able to keep up with the scale of required investment," the organisation said.
The body has recommended that the Government “assess whether the funding model for water services is sufficient to cover the high investment costs and whether household water charges would be an appropriate financing source”.
In a detailed review of Ireland’s environmental performance, the OECD said Ireland will find it “challenging” to meet its 2030 climate targets. Those targets include a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of the country’s electricity coming from renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
Cork Solidarity TD, Mick Barry, said the OECD measures "cut against the interests" of working people.
He warned: "A Government which tried to introduce water charges in the 2020s would be met with a level of public opposition which would make the water charges campaign of the last decade look like a tea party."
Mr Barry said that emergency measures are necessary to tackle Ireland's environmental crisis but that the measures necessary are very different from those being suggested by the OECD.
He voiced his support for wealth taxes, as well as the introduction of free public transport, to combat the overuse of personal cars.
Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said he is confident Ireland can meet its climate change objectives, but acknowledged it will be “no small challenge”.
He agreed that more needs to be done to lower agriculture and transport emissions — Ireland’s largest two pollution trouble spots — and said the Government needs to increase its environmental R&D spend.
A spokesperson for Mr Ryan said there are "no plans to change the current system" of water charges.
The spokesperson also referred to the programme for government which states that Irish Water will be retained in public ownership as a national, standalone, regulated utility.
The document also states that the Government will fund Irish Water’s capital investment plan for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure on a multi-annual basis and deliver the €8.5bn funding package committed to in Project Ireland 2040.
However, the Government also say that the recommendations of the Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services in relation to excess use will be implemented.
As well as water charges, the OECD has said that “more determined action” is needed for Ireland to tackle emissions from buildings, transport and agriculture and to lower the dominance of fossil fuels in the energy mix.
It favours the implementation of congestion charges to help lower transport emissions.
The OECD has urged more investment to be made in the renewable energy market — saying its progress has been “uneven” and that there is not enough infrastructure to meet climate targets.