Victoria White


Water deal fiasco sells our children’s environmental future down river

92% of Irish people will not pay anything for the water they use and nobody will get a bill, writes Victoria White

Water deal fiasco sells our children’s environmental future down river

I DON’T want water charges to come in “by the back door”, to quote Solidarity’s Paul Murphy. I don’t want to pay a sneaky “levy” if I use 70% more than an “allowable” 133 litres per person per day, which is in itself way above the average use of water among EU states.

I refuse. I won’t pay.

I want water charges to come in by the front door. The one facing the street which everyone can see. That’s the door through which I expect this sovereign state to honour its international commitments. Particularly when those commitments are aimed at conserving the environment and protecting the health of 510m people.

Instead I’ve had to sit there and watch the bunch of Harry Houdinis trying to twist their way out of our binding commitments under an EU directive. Wriggling seems to be their first response to environmental law and to be fair, they are good at it. Look how the arch wriggler Bertie Ahern won us a derogation on our commitment to introduce domestic water charges in 2000.

And charging for water is our commitment under the Water Framework Directive, make no mistake about it. The pricing of our water use is meant to incentivise the efficient use of water because that is what’s good for the environment.

The use of water in our homes was about 150 litres per person per day in 2011 while Belgium’s was about 26 litres. It’s obvious we’re going to have to do something to reduce our use of water and a charging regime typically cuts use by 15%.

So what do Tweedledum and Tweedledumber do? They institute a charge for leaving the bathwater running until it overflows, seeps through the ceiling and falls on the heads of those sitting downstairs.

“Goodness,” you’ll exclaim as you dry off your hair. “Must be time to turn off the taps! Don’t want to get pay a water charge, now do we?” But not to worry. If you do get a bill for water usage, bring it to Barry Cowen and he’ll sort it out. He’s swearing blind that 92% of Irish people will not pay anything for the water they use and nobody will get a bill.

The charges 60% of us paid will be paid back. And he’s not even asking us to pay back our — ahem – water conservation grant.

Will I get another water conservation grant if I don’t use 70% more water than the Government thinks I should, which is already three or four times as much as many other Europeans? Have I a good campaign on my hands? Barry, will you come up with the goods?

The only snag is that charging for the water we use is meant to fund our water system. The Water Framework Directive, to which we committed of our own free will states: “The principle of the recovery of the costs of water services, including environmental and resource costs associated with damage or negative impact on the aquatic environment should be taken into account in accordance with, in particular, the polluter-pays principle.”

Instead our new regime will fund investment in water infrastructure from the general tax take and from borrowing. The deal cooked up on Tuesday by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael steals from future generations of Irish people so a bunch of lads and a few lassies don’t have to have an election before the summer.

I don’t believe the flocks of legal eagles both parties have got in to try to squeeze it past EU rules will succeed but their failure won’t be immediate. That’s what matters under the confidence and supply agreement. Staying in power for FG, staying in comfortable opposition for FF.

It’s not worth calling an election over water, they cry. But I disagree. If it’s not worth calling an election over protecting our environment, protecting our health, successfully raising taxes and complying with international law, I don’t know what is.

Our attitude to this EU commitment stinks like the beach in Youghal when a load of raw sewage has just been pumped onto it. It stinks like all the other coastal areas affected by raw sewage including such iconic names as Ballycotton, Crosshaven, Arklow, Kilmore Quay, Kilrush, Duncannon, Killybegs and Kilrush. It stinks like a third of our rivers and half of our lovely lakes if you chance upon them on a hot, still day.

Why bother being in the EU when we don’t enforce environmental law, which is among the best things the organisation has done for us? Forget about us for the moment, though. What right have we to be in the EU if we refuse to play our part in which is — must be — a collective effort to stop pollution and protect public health?

The Water Framework Directive is the fine achievement of the community of nations to which we belong. Far from ushering in the privatisation of water systems, it enjoins us to work together to protect this vital community resource. It opens with the statement: “Water is not a commercial product like any other, but rather a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.” It doesn’t say: “Water is not a political football”. It doesn’t even say: “Water is not a dead cat”. But then the drafters of the Water Framework didn’t seem to have the likes of us in mind when they were dreaming up the proper legal response to concerns raised about water quality raised by the Community Water Policy Seminar as far back as 1988. And they certainly didn’t have us in mind when they wrote that “the success of this directive relies on close co-operation and coherent action”.

The directive is a call to action but not the kind that involves walking to the Dáil waving a placard or imprisoning the Tanaiste in her car. No, it’s harder than that. It involves building communities to help protect their own river basins.

This is beginning to happen around the country. The Nore Suir River Trust and the Slaney River Trust are already up and running. Just recently the inhabitants of the Blackwater banks cleared the river of the destructive invasive plant, Himalayan Balsam. On Saturday, April 22, volunteers along the Dodder banks from Tallaght to Ballsbridge will take part in the fifth Dodder Action Day.

Our elected leaders, from 1997 when water charges were first dumped to this week, when they were dumped again, are not kicking the can down the road. They’re kicking it into the river. Somewhere downstream, a future generation stands up to its knees in filth, trying to catch it.

92% of Irish people will not pay anything for the water they use and nobody will get a bill

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