Changing life in Ireland

Eammon Callaghan couldn’t believe it when he opened his most recent bill from Irish Water. Not only was he charged 215 euros for his annual water bill, one that he had received last April 2015 for the first time, but a technician (TAD2)  was coming to install a water meter in his house as well. He realized how important clean, abundant water is to his everyday life, but he still had a hard time paying for something that had been received free of charge (it was covered in his annual tax payment) for every Irish household and business since Dublin municipal water was first supplied around 1900.

Most of the water supplied in Ireland is good, clean water, but there are a few areas around Dublin where it is not drinkable — yet water charges were distributed to everyone. Eammon also knew that over 40 percent of the water that entered the Dublin water distribution system, mostly from reservoirs in the nearby Wicklow Mountains, was lost due to leakage through century-old pipes that had deteriorated slowly each year. He couldn’t help but think of the abundance of water around Dublin, and the whole country for that matter. Regular year-round rainfall allowed the country to be green, supplying grass for sheep and cattle and crops for us – both major sources of income for many rural Irish people. This water is also the major component of Guinness beer, which offers many the opportunity to discuss these issues daily in their local pubs. So what was Eammon going to do about this issue? More research was needed.

Whose idea was it that these water charges were needed? What were the reasons for starting this program? It seemed  that free water was just fine. Water charges have truly been a political football in Ireland for many years. Proposals have been presented and rescinded many times starting in the 1970s. Then in April 2014, the government announced the formation of Irish Water, a semi-state company that would administer all public water and distribution systems in the country, taking control from 34 local water authorities. In several months, Irish Water estimated it would need 180 million euros to establish its staff, computer systems and monitoring equipment — all this without actually touching any of the existing water supply systems and their problems in the country. For a household of four (two adults and two children), initial average water charges started at 278 euros per year or €4.88 for 1,000 liters of water for properties requiring both waste and drinking water services, and half that for properties requiring one service. If one was supplied by a well or had a septic system for wastewater treatment, these charges did not apply.

Opposition to these water plans has always existed in the government and with local citizen groups. In October 2014, over 50,000 people gathered in Dublin to protest Irish Water’s plans and tried to let the government know water should be administered by public utility groups, not one large private company. But not until April 2015 did the first water charge bills go out to all households supplied by public water systems. Most of the recipients of these bills were not happy. These charges were in addition to the annual taxes they were paying. When the amount of money spent by Irish Water for its computer systems set-up and consultant fees was revealed, more gasoline was poured on the already burning fire of protest.

Loras students and I arrived in January 2016 mostly unaware of this controversial environmental issue. Almost all of the people we talked to rolled their eyes and immediately said they were not going to pay their water charges from that point on. It was a national election year, and this issue was in the top five issues on each party’s platform. As our group made our way along Dublin’s O’Connell Street in mid-January, a huge group of protesters (estimated at 3,000) gathered to express their opposition to current water charges and how Irish Water was conducting business. To describe the Irish election system here would take too long, so, to make a long story short, water charges have been officially suspended through March 2017. New legislation in the new Irish government is currently in discussion and will hopefully include a long-term funding strategy for supplying water to the people of Ireland. The water issue remains murky.

Editor’s note: In spring semester 2016, the first Loras science course was taught in Ireland via the Ireland Study Abroad program. In this three-part column, Dr. Tom Davis will remark on the issues that they experienced while abroad as part of his class.

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