Idea of free water goes down the drain

The concept of free water is not understood in other EU states, yet Ireland was able to remain outside of the common practice despite its water standard infringements, writes Europe correspondent Ann Cahill

FREE water” is not a concept understood in any part of the EU where people have paid for their water for decades, some at a flat rate, others according to what they use.

Ireland has been the exception. In the EU document dealing with water, a clause was inserted at the country’s insistence. It was a “get out” clause for Ireland which said that, provided the objectives of the legislation were being met, it was not necessary to impose charges.

This Irish solution survived despite the country being taken to the courts over filthy rural water supplies, effluent threatening lakes, rivers and fish, and the cryptosporidium outbreak in Galway that affected human health.

But the Government realised the game was up and agreed to join the rest of the EU in its updated water management plan, which was submitted a few months ago, along with all the other EU countries as part of a regular six-yearly report.

The European Commission is updating its policy too and has the European Environmental Agency working on a review of pricing based on the cost of delivering water, cleaning it up after use, maintaining the pipes, and infrastructure.

The final recommendations, including some on each country’s management plan, will be published as part of a blueprint in November, and in Ireland’s case will be updated with the latest developments and plans.

According to Beate Werner, head of the water section in the EEA, there is a willingness to pay when there is a transparent and fair price and when people understand the pricing.

“We need water pricing to reflect the service provided by supplying water to your tap and cleaning it before it goes back to the environment.”

Water is a human right and pricing should not interfere with this. A free allowance of about 50 litres a day to those who cannot pay would be fair. Water consumption in an average Irish household with three people is 145 litres per person a day.

However, Ms Werner said there must be a balance between providing sufficient to those who cannot afford to pay very much, and those who use it for luxury — for swimming pools, gardens, and super-showers.

The Government — or the new company, Irish Water — can, for instance, take the opportunity to cut the cost of water to schools that fought and lost the battle when charges were introduced for businesses and institutions including hospitals and schools.

EU spokesman Joe Hennon said: “They can set up special schemes for people who cannot afford to pay, reducing the tariff or refunding part of it. They can do this for schools also, for instance, provided there is some cost that relates to the amount of water used.”

The legislation says the water pricing policy should take into account the cost of providing the water, recovering and cleaning it, and should ensure that the polluter pays, not the taxpayer.

The cost of water varies enormously from country to country. As a percentage of disposal income Italy is the lowest at 0.2% and Poland and Hungary the most expensive at 1.4%, according to the OECD.

The figures change dramatically when the real cost to the poorest sector of the community is calculated ranging from the lowest at 1.1% of disposal income in Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands to between 3.9% and 9% in Poland. The World Bank says water charges should not account for more than 5% of household income.

Recently Flanders in Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, and Germany modified their charges for the less well off.

The amount the user pays is up to the authorities, but according to the EEA, it should be enough to encourage people to use it efficiently and avoid waste.

Experience shows that when people pay according to the amount they use, they cut back on usage. The use of water drops by up to a quarter of a percent for every 1% increase in the cost, according to the OECD.

In Denmark, where all water usage is metered, the average consumption is 116 litres a day, in Germany it is 126, and it is 150 in Britain where about 25% of users have a meter.

A flat rate according to the OECD does not work as well as metering and the EU is encouraging Britain to abandon charges based on the size of the house or apartment, as used in some places.

There will also be changes to how agriculture and industry are charged and this could affect the Irish system — for instance, by increasing charges the more water an enterprise uses. At the moment in some regions, the cost is reduced for those using most water.

Ireland has lots of water but just because it rains frequently and the rivers and lakes are full does not mean it is cost free. Cleaning up water, making sure it is safe to drink, and delivering it to the nation’s taps costs over €1.2bn in 2010, including capital costs.

Drought conditions in Dublin, despite no let-up in the country’s annual rainfall, have raised another problem. With the population heading towards 2m people, providing sufficient water poses additional problems, and costs.

The other part of the equation is looking after the quality of the water, both to protect human health, and the environment, which is not cost-free. Many countries, including Ireland, have cut back on plans for improved water quality because of the economic crisis as they recognise there is a balance between what people can afford to pay and the risks they are willing to take, according to the OECD.

Finally, according to a Eurobarometer survey carried out last month, two thirds of Irish citizens favour paying what it costs for clean water. There were only seven other countries that were more in favour of water charges. The same two thirds believed water quality was a serious problem while more than 40% said quality had got worse over the past few years.

How water services work in European countries


* State’s annual investment per person in water and sewage: €154.

* Water services cost €1.2bn in 2010, including €500m capital costs.

* The average consumption per person per day is 145 litres.

* Water loss is at least 40% — the highest in EU.

* Agriculture uses 10%. Producing 1kg of meat takes five to 10 times as much water as producing 1kg of wheat.

* Commerce uses 74% — Anybody who cannot pay can apply to their local authority for a waiver. The courts can order a water supply to be disconnected, but it is rarely done because of health and safety implications.

* Typical water usage: Drinking water 3%; shower/bath 32%; toilets 28%; washing machine 12%; sink/dishwasher 22%; external use 3%.


* Water is privatised and regulated by a government-appointed regulator.

* 40% is metered, the rest is a flat rate. Some rates are based on size of property. Meters are compulsory in water-stressed areas.

* Average annual payment: €74 for drinking water, €122 for waste water.

* Payment covers: 89% of drinking water costs, 84% of waste water costs.

* Water loss: 15% (estimated at 36 litres per property per day).

* Daily water consumption: 150 litres. The aim is to cut this to 120 litres.

* An extra 20% of GDP will need to be spent to maintain services.

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: Water: €97; sewage: €170 per year.


* Water is state-owned and managed by municipal bodies some of which contract services out to private companies. A law in 1993 cut back on corruption by private operators.

* Average annual payment: €92 for drinking water, €98 for waste water.

* Payment covers 94% of the cost of drinking water and 79% of waste water costs.

* Water loss: 21%.

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: €109 for water, €135 per year for sewage.

* There is an inter-ministerial mission on water bringing together all government departments with anything to do with water under the prime minister to advise on water issues.

* An extra 20% of GDP will need to be spent to maintain and upgrade services.

* Typical usage: Drinking water 1%; shower/bath 39%; toilets 20%; washing machine 12%; sink/dishwasher 10%; external use 6%; food preparation 6%.


* Water is publicly-owned and managed by 12,000 local authorities, although there is a trend towards involving private companies.

* Average annual payment: €82 for drinking water, and €116 for waste water.

* Payment covers 99% of cost of drinking water and 96% of waste water.

* Water consumption per person per day is 125 litres. This causes its own problems with water having to be pumped through sewers to prevent stagnation.

* Water loss: 6.5%.

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: Water: €83; sewage: €123 per year.


* Average annual payment: €39 for drinking water, €53 for waste water.

* Payment covers 83% of cost of drinking water and 72% of waste water.

* Water loss: 24%.

* Average consumption: 130 litres per day.

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: €66 for water, €96 for sewage per annum.


* Water is state-owned and a law in 2004 banned privatisation. However, some services are contracted out to private operators.

* Consumption: 128 litres per person a day.

* Average annual payment: €81 for drinking water, €114 for waste water

* Payment covers 100% of the cost of drinking water

* Water loss: 7%

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: Water: €83; sewage: €127 per year.


* Public ownership. High use of meters.

* Average household price per year: €405.

* Price varies depending on cost of service but must cover all costs.

* Average consumption: 114 litres per person per day — lowest in EU.

* Water loss: 7%.


* Water is owned by the state but business is pushing for more privatisation.

* Average annual payment per person: €66 for drinking water, €93 for waste water.

* Payment covers 93% of the cost of drinking water and 78% of waste water.

* Water loss: 11%

* Water consumption: 130 litres per person per day

* Cost to consumer of bringing standards to EU levels: Water: €91, sewage €119 per year.

More in this section

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd