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Water charges – toughest challenge this Government will face

By Paul Melia Irish Independent

Tuesday March 20 2012

IT’s not just our health that will suffer if we don’t clean up our water. Thousands of jobs in IT, pharmaceuticals and the food and tourist businesses are at risk if we don’t improve quality and produce water on a par with the best in Europe.

Ireland faces a major challenge over the coming years. Water quality is improving, but hundreds of treatment plants across the State need to be upgraded.

And it’s going to be very expensive — experts say at least €500m is needed every year up to 2027 to meet EU targets on water quality.

Much of our economic success has come about because multinationals like Intel in Leixlip and Pfizer in Cork see Ireland as a place that can meet demand for clean, good quality water.

Coupled with our low corporation tax rates, it has enticed major employers in the IT, pharmaceutical and chemical industries here. If there’s any drop in quality they will go elsewhere, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.

The Government also plans a major increase in food production, with the Food Harvest 2020 strategy planning to increase exports by 42pc by 2020. Food production is very water-intensive.

We all know about the drive for more tourists. Clean and green Ireland attracts anglers, walkers and families. Upset stomachs and putrid bathing waters won’t pull in the tourist euro.

A step in the right direction is to establish a single company, to be called Irish Water, to take control.

It will borrow money to build plants and upgrade the system, while also providing specialist careers in water management — expertise that could be later exported as the world grapples with water shortages.

The problem for the Government is how to pay for all the work. Ireland is one of the few EU countries without household water charges, meaning there is no incentive to reduce use.

There’s also no money in the kitty, meaning that even had the troika not insisted that domestic water charges be introduced, they probably would have happened anyway. But there’s a lack of certainty on how the system will work — how much ‘free’ water will be given? How much will people pay? What happens to those living in homes where a meter cannot be installed?

The international experience only tells us so much. Average daily cons-umption per adult in Ireland is 150 litres. The free allocation in Johannes-burg, South Africa, is 25 litres per day. In Flanders, it is 41 litres. Will we be somewhere in the middle?

The average household water bill in Scotland is £324 (€388 ) a year — just over €1 a day — but the Scots don’t have to grapple with a raft of stealth taxes introduced to help shore up creaking government coffers.

The introduction of household water charges from 2014 is among the toughest challenges this Government will face.

Everyone knows our water services are not up to scratch and will bitterly resent having to pay for a sub-standard service.

It’s for precisely these reasons that we’re going to have to start paying. If we don’t, we face the prospect of more health problems, and hi-tech companies moving elsewhere.

– Paul Melia.

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