Provision and cost of water is in sharp focus

You can’t but empathise with those without water this week, yet it does pose a dilemma for anti-water charge hard left and populists, says Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

You wouldn’t wish what the 70,000 people in Meath and Louth have had to endure this past week on anyone.

The sight of army personnel on the streets is never a comforting one and a clear sign that this has been and continues to be a national emergency.

You can’t but empathise with the crisis that has befallen them but it has brought the whole issue of the provision of water back into sharp focus.

Aside from the near week-long chaos caused to families and businesses large and small in the region, the affair has raised significant dilemmas for those hardline opponents of water charges.

Worse still was the news that a similar leak to that in Drogheda could happen elsewhere in the country, according to Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy.

Mr Murphy yesterday said his department will examine what exactly happened in this case to see how it can be improved upon in the future. He said he could not rule out a similar leak happening in the future.

While efforts were being made to try to maintain a temporary water supply in the northeast, the minister said he knows this is not good enough.

He said he will be bringing forward legislation in the autumn on the future funding of Irish Water. There is no “funding certainty” for Irish Water at present and it is competing with other demands on the exchequer, such as health and education.

“I think people should have to pay for water and it should then be invested in the infrastructure,” he said.

While resisting the urge to politicise his comments about how to fund water into the future, it was the elephant in the room during his interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

It was interesting that on social media the other night, I sent one tweet remarking as to how quiet the anti-water charge brigade had been since the major pipe in Meath burst.

Cue pourings of outrage from the online crazies who took grave umbrage.

Given the abuse levelled at me, you’d swear I’d said something genuinely controversial.

Let me be clear, as I was clear online, I have nothing but sympathy for those people and businesses affected in Meath and Louth, some of whom are friends and colleagues.

I believe that the manner in which Irish Water was established was a monumental mistake and has done great damage to the cause of improving the provision of water in Ireland for at least a generation.

Trying to do a 10-year job in 18 months — all as part of the bid to say goodbye to the Troika in 2013 — Phil Hogan, Fine Gael, and Labour between them connived to make a disaster of the most important infrastructure project for more than 100 years.

Notwithstanding the shameful political foul-ups, the kinds of emergencies currently witnessed in Louth and Meath will only continue if the Paul Murphy vision of the world is allowed to hold sway.

Their opposition is merely a rallying cry for the status quo.

That is why Fianna Fáil’s conversion to the anti-water side was an episode in dangerous and self-destructive populism. I think many within the party know it too.

By opposing a solid and stable payment system of charges, water charge opponents have denied the public utility, Irish Water, of a means of funding itself and from getting itself to a point where it can sustainably invest in the network.

By insisting that taxing some mythical rich people who live overseas or in the clouds will deliver salvation, they are being completely naive.

At present, 49% of all treated water leaks out of the network before it reaches its intended target.

It is true that Mr Murphy is not in a position of his choosing when it comes to the funding of Irish Water.

In the legislation he is preparing for the autumn are a number of factors which need to be considered.

As we reported last week, there is a shortfall in the budget for Irish Water this year because of the decision to extend the suspension of water charges, not once but twice.

The suspension is now set to last until the end of the year, but in truth, water charges for domestic customers will not return as long as the Dáil’s numbers are the way they are.

Added to that is the €170m cost of ensuring refunds are paid to those who did pay their water charges by the end of this year, as promised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar two weeks ago.

Mr Murphy has said Irish Water will have €500m to play with in terms of capital infrastucture projects next year, but everyone knows it really needs to be double that at least.

The fix put in place yesterday on the pipe in Meath was nothing more than a plaster. The entire 2.2km special pipe needs immediate replacing, but as the minister said, it will be months not weeks before that is delivered.

“If you look at this piece of pipe, it handles water at a pressure of 600% than your normal pipe,” Mr Murphy told angry residents in Drogheda on Tuesday evening. “It is an old pipe. That is why we are prioritising to replace the 2.2km pipe. It is a priority for Irish Water and it will take place over months, I don’t want to give false expectations. You can’t build 2.2km of a massive pipe overnight, it will take a few months.”

By admitting that the same thing could happen elsewhere, the minister was merely reflecting the fact that Irish Water is trying to repair 150 years of use, neglect, and mismanagement with a significantly weakened hand.

This is not where Fine Gael wanted things to be, but they find themselves in this bind because of the short-sighted and daft populist policies which hold sway in the Dáil at present.

While they know they can do nothing transformative with Irish Water this side of a general election, the Government has tried and failed repeatedly to get the water issue off the agenda.

But, as long as they fail to grasp the nettle and commit the country to a genuine programme of water conservation, which includes charges and the requisite service levels which must be delivered in tandem, then this mess will continue.

Those who oppose water charges had better come up with a better solution as to how to pay for it all because if they don’t, the events of the past week will happen again and again, if they get their way.


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