Monday, 27 October 2014

Free the Water

More to say about water! Since the 1st of October 2014, the plain people of Ireland are paying for the water that comes out of their taps. Unless they're not. Actually quite a sizable constituency is not a customer of Irish Water, the new semi-state body charged with distributing the wet stuff: people, like us, who get their own clean water and organise the disposal of the foul water themselves. When we moved up the mountain in 1996, one of our first actions was to ask our neighbours John and Mike Doran to sink us a bore-hole in the yard. Being tree-hugging people with a tendency to flakiness we asked them if we should dowse, or would they dowse, to identify the optimum place to start the hole. With commendable pragmatism and shy good manners, they asked where was the nearest source of electricity and suggested that the bore-hole should be as close to that shed as was conveniently possible . . . and it was so.  At 113 ft, they deemed the flow of water to be sufficient, and charged us £4.00 a foot for the drilling.  It cost that much again to install the submersible pump, the pipe-work and the pressure cylinder, so that we had cold running water in the house and in the yard.  Maybe the water would have come in shallower, or more copiously if we'd dowsed a different spot but the final position was almost made the words of Mercutio in R&J appropriate: " 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve."  We lashed out €1500 of hard-won money to get water in which to wash our children, boil spuds and make tea, so I'll be damned if I'm going to pay the government or Irish Water for the privilege. There are something like 750,000 other folk who are similarly self-sufficient. My position for pontificating on this is therefore about as stable as the enormous water-bed which we have in the stable so our thoroughbreds get a good night's sleep.

Periodically, I have to dismantle the intake and the filter and the pressure gauge and clean it all out so that water continues to flow and because of this I don't take the system for granted and we are careful in our consumption. The toilet isn't flushed for every tinkle, the bath water is often used twice, showers don't last for 20 minutes. If you listen to the media over the last month, it seems that Sean O'Public is in a tizz at the outrage that he should have to pay for clean drinking water, so he can wash his car with it every Saturday morning.  Fine Gael senator Martin Conway addressed this truculent negative attitude to government plans with devastating rhetoric: " Well, water doesn't just fall out of the sky, y'know." Which riposte has caused much predictable hilarity among the chattering classes, but laughing doesn't really address the issue that water, as most people expect it out of the kitchen tap, isn't free. In August, I was privy (fnarrr, lavvy joke) to the water bill of the good people with whom we were staying in Massachusetts.  To remind you, over the pond they pay €11,36 per 100 cu.ft [HCF] for a reasonable amount (the rate is higher for bigger consumers) to take in clean water and have the waste disposed of.  That is, coincidentally, exactly €4.00/ton or /1000lt; and within spitting distance of the basic rate for a similar service in Ireland which =  €4.88/ton. One telling point is that those against paying for water claim that they've already paid for it through taxation to the general exchequer. This argument is hard to refute because there hasn't been a commensurate reduction in the VAT or income tax to offset the €1.2billion that local government will no longer pay for supplying water having handed the task over to Irish Water.

It would be far too easy to strike a rate and make people pay for what they use, so Irish Water has decided to make it more complex. The first issue is that despite a 2 years lag time they have only installed a tiny fraction of the necessary water-meters; so they have guesstimated what 'normal' or average consumption is and will be sticking that to their customers for the first 9 months of the scheme. The first person in any household is given 30,000 lt each year 'free' and pays for the additional 36,000 lt that normal people use at the basic rate of €4.88/ton. They must think that a lot of shared baths go down in Ireland (despite that being a mortal sin) because they have built in economies of scale: the second and subsequent adult are assumed to consume a third as much water as of the head of household.  I should point out that a sad 392,000 people in Ireland live alone [there are 1,650,000 households in the country], but at least they can flush the toilet as much as they want. I set out the following table for my Environmental Chemistry class at The Institute.
People
Cost
"Free"
Plus
Rate
Mother
€176
30,000
36,000
€4.88
Father
+€102
0
21,000
€4.88
Student
+€102
0
21,000
€4.88
Child
-
21,000
-
-
And what's this? Why are children somehow privileged to have 21,000 lt of unpaid-for water. It's not like anyone is washing diapers anymore and everybody knows that 8-11 year old boys don't take a bath at all unless forced in there with tongs by their mothers. Perhaps someone who still has children at home could explain the logic.

This is the supply-side reason why we should pay for water directly: so that we have the best hope of getting the best value for money. It costs, as I say above, €1.2 billion to deliver clear drinking water to more than 1.2 million households in Ireland.  Without meters nobody knows but informed guesses suggest that about half of the water, adjusted for pH, treated for human consumption and cleared of cryptosporidium, is lost between the treatment plant and the domestic tap.  This is largely from antique pipework but also because the last 20 years have seen every street in Ireland serially dug up to supply telephone, internet, electricity cables and the pipework keeps getting disturbed and settled down and disturbed again. Irish Water has an incentive to stop wasting water in this way because it will be good for their balance sheet and for each employee's Christmas bonus.

The other reason is on the demand-side.  If you pay for something you are less likely to waste it.  I can see entrepreneurs springing up all over the country making and installing rain-water catchers for flushing toilets; more people letting their goddamned lawn take its chances and getting stronger withall; more scruffy cars on the roads; more full dishwashers and laundry-machines; maybe even immunologically robust children with less eczema, asthma?  Less [bath] is more?

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