Irish Water has been in today’s news again after being in and out of the headlines these past few months probably a lot more than it would have liked.

The ‘semi-state’ company has remained controversial since its incorporation in mid-2013 and particularly since its phased take-over during 2014 of responsibility for 34 local authorities’ provision of water and wastewater services, and especially its 1 October step to introduce direct charging for water accompanying with water metered installation – a move widely understood as making people pay twice for their water (i.e. generation taxation before -> tax plus direct charges after).

On its website Irish Water justifies itself as follows:

‘Water is one of our most valuable resources. It has shaped our landscape, dictated the location of our towns and cities, protected our health, and fuelled our economic development. However, clean water is expensive to both produce and manage. … Our current funding model is simply not sustainable. Despite the good work of the Local Authorities, much greater investment nationally is needed to address weaknesses in the water system, including high leakage rates, varying quality standards, and disruptions to supply.’

It also stresses Ireland’s comparative context:

‘Ireland is currently the only country in the OECD that does not have domestic water charges.’

There is no mention though of direct water charging being part of the Irish government’s deficit reduction actions after an international bailout following the global 2007/2008 economic crisis.

I must say the first thing that sprung to my mind after hearing all these Irish water news stories was that aspects of this case are strikingly similar to a challenge Prof. Dale Whittington poses to our University of Manchester students (in our class on water and sanitation planning and policy each year). There we take the Egyptian water tariff reform situation. This has similar features of (i) historical under-investment, (ii) historically low and/or not very transparent water charging, and (iii) pressure from international financial institutions. We ask our students to plan a multi-stakeholder communication programme for pricing reform. Generally they come to appreciate it’s a challenging task, even more so in a politically turbulent setting like Egypt!

But even given how complex this task is, it’s difficult to imagine getting things as wrong as they seem to have gone in the Irish case. Today’s news coverage in the Irish Independent is indeed in this vein, quoting Irish Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe as saying:

‘Irish Water bosses failed to send “warning signals” to the Government that could have prevented the fiasco which has engulfed the company …’

‘… the management of Irish Water took on way too much and should have been giving warning signals to the Government earlier. That didn’t happen.’

‘The government wasn’t given warning signals earlier of the pressure areas.’

Revelations that over 50 million Euro was spent by Irish Water on consultants in 2013 started 2014 badly, so any reform communication strategy – if indeed there was a ‘strategy’ at all – was on shaky ground to begin with. It’s also clear your communication ‘strategy’ needs a serious change of course when in addition to mass protests (on 10 December, and earlier) you find musician Sinead O’Connor blogging about Irish Water charges and Russell Brand making Irish water-related Trews videos:

Irish Water has now capped water charges (full details are here) to attempt to address concerns expressed in recent months. It may now hope that troubling headlines are behind it as 2014 closes. Ireland’s historical legacy of general taxation will be difficult to overcome though, if other water reform cases around the world are any guide. There’s also the additional complexity to the Irish case to address – ‘group water schemes’ where rural water users installed their own granted-aid water systems from the 1960s onwards.

I imagine water pricing in Ireland is going to remain a hot topic for some time to come, so Irish Water may have to brace itself for more tough times ahead in 2015.

Duncan Thomas

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