Instead Of Reintroducing Water Charges, Should we Look At Adding A Right To Water In The Constitution?

Published on 15 May 2021 at 11:53

In the last few days, on Monday, the 10th of May, a debate has re-emerged about the need for the Irish Government to look at the reintroduction of domestic water charges. This has come about, following the recommendations by the OECD, for the need for Ireland to consider the reintroduction of domestic water charges to help meet its environmental targets. 


The introduction of domestic water charges previously came about, under the Fine Gael – Labour coalition government, having been signed off on by the outgoing Fianna Fáil – Green Party coalition government, among a range of austerity measures which had been pushed through. 


According to The Irish Times, OECD stated that, ‘the State should increase carbon taxes, introduce water charges and impose higher waste charges'. Calling for bolder actions, the OECD warned that the State’s carbon emissions, waste generation and agriculture-based pollution all rose with strong economic growth prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and will do so again.


Despite international pledges made by the State to cut CO2 emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, Ireland will fail to meet its obligations unless the link between growth and emissions is cut, says the Paris-based body. Besides higher carbon taxes, home water charges and waste levies, motoring taxes should shift away from charges on fuel to road charges to cut down on travel and encourage use of public transport.


Many of the measures will be difficult for the Government to implement, given the water charges battle nearly a decade ago, and recent Dáil anger about the impact changes will have on rural Ireland’. Further, The Irish Times said that ‘decarbonisation of the State’s transport and agriculture is urgently needed, the OECD recommends, since they are the two largest sources of carbon emissions….


The report backs the Green Party’s ambition to spend twice as much on public transport as roads, saying that a fifth of the transport capital budget should go on cycling and pedestrians. Employers could be able to make tax-free payments to those who walk or cycle to work, too. Urging the Government to ‘reconsider’ the introduction of household water charges’, the OECD said such revenues are need to accelerate investment in water supply and sanitation’. The Irish Times explained that the 10-yearly review found that ‘only 60 per cent of the Irish population is connected to advanced wastewater treatment – the third-lowest level among OECD countries’. 


Meanwhile, ‘investment in water infrastructure has increased considerably, it accepts, ‘but Ireland still suffers from high water losses, hot spots of low drinking water quality and inadequate wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, progress on waste recycling has stagnated, and a levy should be put on incineration, or export of reusable and recyclable waste, while the current landfill levy should rise’. 


The recommendation by the OECD for Ireland to re-look at re-introducing domestic water charges gathered strong reaction from opposition and was ruled out by the Government. According to People Before Profit TD, for Dublin South-West, Paul Murphy TD, the ‘push’ to bring back water charges ‘should be completely rejected’… The Government should remember the opposition previously displayed, he went on, adding: ‘Any attempt to reintroduce them now would be met with a similar mass movement’. 

According to Cork’s Red FM, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said ‘no we won’t be going back on that, we won’t be introducing water charges’. Minister for the Environment, Eamon Ryan, elaborated further by saying, ‘we will not be going back to the water charges issue, I think it was agreed in the Oireachtas All Party Committee’. 

In summary, the recommendation by the OECD for Ireland to look at the reintroduction of domestic water charges has been opposed, which is welcome. The mass movement of people, a couple of years ago, which opposed the introduction of domestic water charges, was a clear message to the then Fine Gael – Labour Government that domestic water charges could not be successfully implemented. The scenes of a mass movement of ordinary people which took to the streets in protests against water charges, as seen in RTÉ series, Reeling In The Years, will surely become ever more familiar if the Government ever even considered the idea of introducing water charges. 


The controversy of the introduction of water charges really took hold in 2014 when the then Minister for Environment, Phil Hogan, threatened people who did not pay their water charges, with turning off their water supply. In any sort of a functioning democracy, this should and could never have happened. Thankfully, the success of the Right2Water campaign and a mass movement of ordinary people ensured that the Irish Government eventually opposed the idea of introducing water charges, after delays. 


As opposed to the recommendations of the OECD for Ireland to look at the reintroduction of domestic water charges, the Government should increase public funding and spending on water, address inadequate wastewater treatment and ensure that areas that do not have access to basic drinking water that is safe for usage, need to be addressed. In the 21st century, it is unacceptable that many parts of the country do not have access to clean drinking water. 


As well as that, the Government, should hold a referendum on ensuring that water is a basic human right and ensuring public ownership of water, instead of the current form of semi-state body, Irish Water. Water should be in full public ownership. Many European countries such as Spain, Portugal, France and Hungary, already ensure that people have equitable access to water. 


However, unfortunately, according to, ‘water is not defined as a right either in the Irish Constitution, or in the various laws pertaining to water supply – most recently, the legislation setting up Irish Water’. As water is a basic human right, according to the UN, the Irish Government should follow this recommendation by holding a referendum in the next two years on inserting the right to water in the constitution. 


I do not see the issue of the introduction of water charges, continuing to be an issue in the lifetime of this Government but if future Governments consider the idea, the idea will be met with resistance from the public and at the ballot boxes in future elections. However, instead, as stated, a referendum should be held on inserting the right to access to clean water in the Constitution in the lifetime of this Government. 

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