Same Old Watery Road

Anti-Water charge activist James Quigley from Donegal responds to a recent article by Joe Dalton.

Mr Dalton's article The Irish Water Sector A Sorry Tale is pretty long. 

Unfortunately it could take just as long to answer his many arguable points.  My first impression was whoa! why is he writing a regurgitation of all this now?   But I have to concur with him that Irish Water sector is indeed in a very sorry tale although not in the way he thinks.

Another, off topic thought I had was whoa! why is TPQ even printing it?

We have been down this road many, many times countering these conservative, neoliberal capitalist elitist arguments as Mr Dalton quite rightly says for  decades?  Yet here he is still using what can only be described as a status quo argument and corporate policy of best, most cost effective, efficient way of providing a water system in Ireland.

The answer, in my mind, is that best, efficiency and effectiveness are all subjective terms depending on one's political viewpoint, outlook and will.  It is not just through the prism of pounds, shillings and pence or to computed data that we  assess  best,  effectiveness or efficiency.  One may have to take a circuitous route to get there.  It may take a longer route but in the end this may be more satisfying, fair and dare I say best, efficient and effective. 

The way Mr Dalton started his article by saying that 'Ireland is on a different planet to the rest of the world'  is  condescending and misleading.  He maintains this condescending manner throughout.   It could be that he has spent a long time  in the lofty towers of Bahrain where he has exported his political beliefs and his engineering expertise, accompanied by his corporate ethos, that is a factor in his thinking that Ireland is a universe away.

However, there is something to what he says though, but maybe  not in way he means, when he says 'Ireland is almost unique'.  Isn’t that a paradox, you are either unique or not, can one be almost unique? Anyway, I agree that Ireland is indeed unique,  like any county, in its people, culture, environment and resources. 

It is this uniqueness that should determine policies not only on water but generally how we organise society.  Sometimes there is a fine line between  common or global policies and bureaucratic nonsense but there is a major one between democracy, freedom to choose and  corporate/multinational imperialism.  What fits in one country does not fit another. Countries can agree on say environmental and sustainable issues but how one interprets these whether it is Bahrain or Berlin should be a matter for individual countries. 

Whether Mr Dalton is too long looking at things in an academic, analytical, technical way or  succumbed to multinational corporate economic arguments,  his way of thinking is indeed at odds with 'many of his fellow countrymen'.

This  uniqueness is getting at the crux of the argument and unwittingly he has hit it.  Most of his countrymen and women are at odds with him, with the Government, with corporate thinking, with EU and global pressure and have been for a very long time, as he quite rightly says since the 1980s.  

I have been involved in all three campaigns against the introduction of water charges.  In Buncrana during the first campaign in the 80's led by the National Assoc of Tenants Organisations against EU pressure and Fine Gael/Labour capitulation,  my family and three others in the town had our water supply  cut off for over a year.  We were also brought to court.  This happened in various parts in Ireland but our determination forced the Government to abandon water charges.

Mr Dalton has got his the historical sequence of events more or less right but for a more class oriented approach have a read of these perspectives.

Mr Dalton's arguments are perhaps futile given that water charges as he envisions  them are dead in the water, hopefully not to surface again.  Even a commission of his peers, hand-picked by Minister Coveney, the 'Expert Commission on Domestic Water Services'  more or less said this in  their final report officially submitted to the Dáil last week.

The Commission report section 5.2.1 stated:

Having considered various options and the background to the current situation, the Expert Commission has reached the conclusion that the optimal arrangement that should now be put in place is one that involves the funding of water services, fro normal domestic and personal use, as a charged against taxation
It should be noted that finally we have at last, got some objective facts and figures albeit in a roundabout way and sifted through the calculus at the other end of the political divide.

However, even Mr Dalton can not ignore the conclusions.  And also maybe acknowledge a couple of other vital and important facts in the commission's report that seem to have been missed or sidelined by politicians, the media and himself.  

The Commission acknowledged the groundswell of opinion in Ireland and that most vital element in anything - trust. In my view this is one of the most important and essential facts, the lack of trust that the Irish people have in the Government and Irish Water Ltd, that has come out of the Commission's report.  The report could not have been any clearer on this stating the importance of trust several times. 

They go on to say that trust has to be developed and that the Irish people must be part of the decision process.  I have to commend the Commission for highlighting aspect of the whole process.  Maybe Mr Dalton and TDs, some of whom are presently deliberating the Commission's report in a special Oireachtas Committee, might take heed of this vital information.  Maybe the media might report the Commission's conclusions properly and not, as usual dwell on incidental, division sensationalism, pitting one section of the community against the other i.e. those who paid and those who did not, people with wells etc.

The other titbit of the Commission's report which seems to be glossed over is their reference to

'the most recent consumption data suggests that Ireland is at the lower end of the spectrum of EU countries with regard to domestic consumption'. (Section 2.3.6.)

This little bit of info is highly significant not only in the circuitous argument but also in the trust and role of the Irish population point.  Either the Irish are a dirty lot, not washing themselves or they buck the politicians and corporate view that we are inherently civic minded.  I know this may be hard for politicians, business and the corporate world to comprehend but which is it?  I go with civic minded.  That is why we have been fighting the establishments propaganda for decades.

I classify myself as a proponent 'against charging people for water'. I believe that access to clean drinking water and sanitation should be a human right.  We eat, we drink, we defecate, the natural process of life.  That is something we can not package up and commodify.  It should not be subject to political or market forces nor should one's basic human needs be subject to affordability. I think that the mark of a progressive society our quality of life, and how we utilise our expertise and resources  for the benefit of all, equally and fairly.

Mr Dalton says "Personally, I am not ideologically hung up on the whole public versus private issue." he goes on to say:

It is a fact that the more successful Irish Water becomes as a utility organisation, the more attractive it would become to a potential private operator. However this does not make privatisation inevitable or even desirable. It is a very weak argument that keeps water services dysfunctional just to guarantee that there will be no privatisation.

And then says "my own preference is for an effective public utility. Water Charges and Metering in the rest of the World."

Firstly I think, Mr Dalton,  should acknowledge that his preference for privatisation sticks out a mile.  He is playing with words. On the one hand he has no preference either way but on the other hand his preference is ‘public utility’.  Well good for him, he can swing both ways. However, this type of argument can described as 'marketing jargon'.   This stance, sitting on the fence, can only be interpreted as ‘privatisation’ by stealth.

He uses words like 'hung up' and dysfunctional', disparaging flippant remarks throughout the piece. How dare he look down on the public who if it was not for years of hardship, courage and commitment our water resource would by now be owned by the Kingdom of Bahrain managed by the likes of him.  How dare he make little of the question of privatisation.  Not too sure what he means by 'rest of world' but the statement is sweeping and again somehow referring to Ireland being out of step. 

What does  he mean by his preference for a 'public utility'?  Is it run on a commercial basis, possibly outsourcing the infrastructure and the day to day work  to private corporations? This is actually happening and the question of 'public' and 'private' is getting more and more blurred.

Many of the Anti Water Charges campaigners, possible not R2W trade unions, are very interested in this very notion of 'Public Utility', it's role and the role of local authorities.  This was hinted at in the Commission report, however, as said before, it was not in the terms of reference.  However, they do mention:

Given our earlier recommendation to guarantee Irish Water in public ownership and the proposed funding model, the Expert Commission is of the opinion that the Irish Government, Irish Water and its parent company Ervia may need to fundamentally re-assess the funding model for investment, since a number of the assumptions that were originally made (e.g. Irish Water would be treated off the General Government Balance Sheet) are no longer valid. (5.3.5)

This is interesting and I take it that the Oireachtas must look at the role of Irish Water and how our water infrastructure is organised.  Mr Dalton does not go into this but it is clear that the idea of Irish Water Ltd as devised must be fundamentally reviewed.  

Given what the Commission said about public trust and support, some of us would argue a case for a central public utility, incorporating local authorities expertise, doing the work on the ground as they are doing and have been doing up to now with very limited budgets.  Costs are a factor but not the only one.  Control of our resources, the number of people employed locally and peoples’ input and access to the system, all must be considered. 

We have to counteract what is happening now, outsourcing our water infrastructure to multinational companies. If this is allowed to happen there will be job losses: profits will go abroad and all this funded by the Irish taxpayer.

Mr Dalton talks about metering as if it was the only way to efficiency.  Well it's not.  Meters are a way of itemising use to maximise charges.  Take for example the change over from analogue meters to smart meters in electricity.  We hear about efficiency and cost effectiveness but in reality cost to the consumer jumps and profits to the provider increases.  The arguments  are misleading.  Domestic users in Ireland  have never been metered but yet we use the least amount of water in the EU.  It is a fact that there is widespread leakage in the public system even before it is delivered to households.  Again the Commission refers to this in section 4.2.

district meters and other new technologies have been shown to be helpful in dis aggregating consumption data.  Where a pattern of excessive us is identified in non-metered households, some adjustment to the currently proposed arrangement may have to be considered.

The Commission's report would tally with local water engineers advising us that there is no need for the expense of installing meters in each house; that district meters run properly can take care of monitoring, usage and leakages.

The report also talks about the expense of metering and questions whether it is advisable to continue.  On the ground we have found that whatever metering that has been installed is of an inferior quality, prone to leaks and only lasts 10 years at a maximum.  Who will bear the brunt of the costs when the meters have to be renewed?  I would argue that they are neither cost effective or practical. 

The health and privacy aspect of 'smart meters' are not touched on.  This is something that is not discussed or highlighted even by the R2W trade unions but nevertheless it is a very valid argument against them.  Surely the ‘Precautionary Principle’ should apply especially when dealing with drinking water.

Again it must be stated that the Commission term of reference was ‘Domestic Service’ it was interesting to note in section 2.4.22:

There have also been problems noted with the collection rate for non-domestic charges, and according to Boyle (2012) ‘service indicator data for Irish local authorities shows that some local authorities have experienced significant difficulties with collecting water charges from non-domestic sector.’ And noting that the collection rate for commercial water charges was much worse that for other charges with almost half of water charges being unpaid across all local authorities (2012:22)

Commercial charging and metering have been an ‘established practice’ in Ireland as opposed to domestic which are  not. It also must be stated that since the 80’s the Irish Government has increased motor tax and vat.  This increase in taxation amounting to over 1.5 billion and counting was to go to the funding of water supply. 

I am glad Mr Dalton mentions the Water Framework Directive and specifically refers to Article 9.4.  It gives  me the opportunity to agree that indeed  this is ‘the most important piece of European water sector legislation’ but I would argue contrary to Mr Dalton that Article 9.4 was  unique to Ireland , an astute piece of legislation. I am not sure what he means referring to Article 9.4: “This is often quoted unconvincingly in support of a contention that Ireland is legally obliged to introduce water charges.”  However, from his subsequent statements I get the feeling that he regrets it’s inclusion and derides  it’s proposers: the Fianna Fáil party “ensured that Article 9 was ambiguous and open to interpretation”. 

Far from it being unclear and open to interpretation as Mr Dalton says, Buncrana Together is in no doubt about what the 9.4 Exemption means, about it’s relevance to Ireland’s water charges issue. See Buncrana Together article here and all the sources given. 

Mr Dalton’s explanations between some of his disparaging comments is quite lucid and informative.  However, I would go on, as the above Buncrana articles encourages, that Ireland should insist on the retention of this vital piece of EU legislation in our River Basin Management Plans. The 2nd 2015-2021 is in the process of being drafted.  Again I have to criticise the R2W unions for not highlighting the 9.4 Exemption and not supplying any submission regarding it to the RBMP despite advise from members and the wider anti water charges groups that they should do so.

Despite not being quite on the same wavelength politically and I am guessing socially as Mr Dalton, I find that there is some common ground between us.   Ireland should have a state of the art water system and as he says “a real victory would be a successful national water utility that the Irish people are happy with and proud of.” 

However,  I would go further and say that such a utility and our water resource must be enshrined in the Constitution as well as the citizen’s right of a domestic water supply.  Any plan must  incorporate maximum employment locally and  ensure that ancillary projects and infrastructures are run and controlled in the public’s interest and not sub-contracted out to private corporations.

Finally I would put the record straight, to amend Mr Dalton’s perception of the Right to Water movement. There are many groups in Ireland that some independent and some that can generally come under the umbrella of R2W.  However, there are some subtle differences one being R2W Trade Unions run by Mr Ogle seem to have taken on the mantle as leaders of the movement.  Again Buncrana Together have written quite a bit on this and I would advise Mr Dalton that Mr Ogle’s account in his book is very much a subjective account.  And for a more in depth, objective on read Buncrana Together or web site or indeed Anti Austerity Alliance who by the way has done more that any other for the state of play today especially their track record and their policy of ‘Boycott’.


  1. Five million people max on this island and a deluge of rain weekly. Endless decades of corruption from TDs and wasted EU money. On top of the austerity deliberately foisted on this small population by criminal bankers and TDs Irish Water proceeded to throw about countless millions in 'consultancy-fees'to the usual shameless suspects. Are we really to trust these people with our water? I agree, I also found Mr Dalton's article a tad condescending and thought the big projects in the middle east and 'loadza-dosh' must have gone to his head. We need a logical, practical and common sense approach to utilities and services in Ireland. Not more of the cute hoor scamming and thieving of public funds, assets and natural resources. ENOUGH.

  2. There should only be concern if Joe Dalton's piece was not afforded space on TPQ. Why would TPQ not run it?

  3. James,

    I think you are being a bit harsh to accuse me of being condescending. In describing Ireland as “almost unique” I was aware that there are exceptions. One place where there were/are no water charges is Libya where I worked for a short time. The context there is not relevant to Ireland. For practical purposes I think Ireland is unique.

    The findings of the Expert Commission on relatively low domestic usage in Ireland were indeed interesting. You should note that it is thanks to metering that we have this information. What is a typical trend when domestic metering is installed is that initially as households are aware they are being measured they are more conservative in their usage. Gradually their usage reverts back to normal as they regard the cost of water to be low compared to overall household expenditure. I am not saying this explains these figures in Ireland but it is a possibility given the limited long term user data available. Either way the focus on metering for conservation was always superfluous.

    I agree with you that an effective utility is subjective and cost effectiveness is only one parameter. I totally agree that what works in one country may not work in another and that countries should be free to choose what works best for them. You accuse me of being pro-privatisation. The most common form of privatisation that campaigners rail against are Divestiture (probably the purest form of privatisation but relatively rare) and Concessions, Leases Contracts and Management Contracts all of which have been very common over the last two decades. I do not advocate any of these models for Ireland. My opposition isn’t ideological in that if other countries wish to try these models and they work for them then good luck to them. In such cases I would want to learn what worked well and what didn’t.

    Where I do see merit in private sector involvement in Ireland is in the provision of certain services, for example construction of new infrastructure or provision of leak detection services. As long as these contracts are well designed and accountable to the public utility, and the general public, they can be in the public interest and provide better value for money than hiring all the expertise directly by the utility.

    Domestic metering is one of tools used to manage the water network. I never suggested it as the only or most important one. I am glad to see that the importance of district metering appears to be recognised by all. District and household metering are two parts of the water balance equation that identifies where such leakage is occurring.

    You are in the right ball park regarding the typical life of a meter though this depends on local conditions such as typical flowrate, water quality, protection from the elements, quality of materials and construction which can vary massively. If all of these issues are addressed the meter life could be considerably longer. In terms of funding of replacement meters there should be no need to ever repeat the large capital cost being incurred at the moment. Replacement of faulty customer meters should come under the utility Operation and Maintenance budget. I must acknowledge that I haven’t researched the health concerns of metering in any detail. All I can say that is that I have been working with meters, including ‘smart meters’, for over a decade and have had no health issues myself.

    The level of non-payment of commercial users identified in the Expert Commission report is a scandal. I would hope that full cross party and community support can be obtained for dealing with this.

    Regarding the Water Framework Directive my annoyance is more with the focus and perceived need for Article 9 at all. I believe water charges are right for the country and should be brought in if and when people like me win the argument against people like you, not because Brussels says we must. I also resent the undemocratic notion that if we do ever introduce them that Europe has an everlasting veto on our right to remove them in future if we so choose.

  4. Larry

    In fairness I think Joe's reasoning has all the elements you demand, ie, they are a reasoned attempt at a "logical, practical and common sense approach". I don't agree with his view on water charges but can see that he does have considerable knowledge and expertise in the supply of water. I think your dismissal of his views are out of order in so far as you come across as resentful that he might be doing well for himself overseas.

  5. Christy Walsh

    Cop yerself on. I begrudge no man doing well and it is because of the cute hoors like Bertie (suicide) Ahern, no doubt, that he had to go abroad in order to do well. He's not alone or unique in that. Ahern is slithering back to the Dail trough now if he can get back into FF. After 'craftily' stepping off his own economic freight train that he deliberately smashed into the buffers in 2008. The Irish, still never recovered from that experience, are correct not to trust these shysters with anything as important as water. Privatisation has been a disaster right across America. People have paying money for toxic undrinkable water, so companies can make a quick buck. Do you honestly think the gombeens here in the Dail, with their track record can be let loose with an asset/resource like that? It hardly maters what experience Joe has professionally, privatisation is the end game for the self servers in the Dail. Why take the chance in the first place?

  6. I would totally agree with Larry on his point. Joe reasoning about the use of water sounds correct as he has all the expertise and knowledge to validate his theories. But from what I have read he sounds like he views water as a commodity, that can be bought and sold and it does, instead of being an essential ingredient that sustains life on this planet.

    Conservation is always the starting point from most politicians about the use or misuse of water but privatisation is usually the end game.

  7. It is incredible how people get won over by the notion of 'expert'. In my experience never believe a word they tell you. Take for example Joe's statement with regard to 'smart meters'

    'All I can say is that I have been working with meters, including ‘smart meters’, for over a decade and have had no health issues myself."

    It reminds me of the anti uranium campaign in Donegal in the 70s. We had a public meeting in Buncrana at the time and an engineer advocating mining stood up, held a piece of granite, I believe, and said look this is a piece of uranium and it is perfectly harmless. Well he was hunted out of the hall and the mining company out of Donegal.

    From the nuclear campaign in Carnsore Point, the incinerator campaign in Derry and recently Save the Foyle campaign we have been told by expert engineers that we had nothing to fear, that their studies, their safety measures and state of art designs would prevent any harm. They all sounded sincere but one thing they had in common they were all on the payroll.

    Irish Water, RPS, Veolia, Architects and Engineers Ireland and on and on are all one happy clique


    Here is a Guardian article Dec 19 2016 but there are many such incidents, like Flint Michigan or Trihalomethanes issue in 11 reservoirs in Donegal and hundreds in Ireland

    "Water companies have been frequently criticised for making huge profits and awarding large shareholder dividends, while paying little or no corporation tax. In October 2015, the National Audit Office found that an £800m windfall for water companies had not been passed on to consumers.

    In 2015-16, Southern Water made an operating profit of £284m, representing 35% of its turnover. Judge Williams fined the company £500,000 in 2014 for another sewage pollution incident in Kent, while in 2015 the company was fined £187,000 for allowing 40m litres of untreated sewage to pour into the sea near East Worthing.

    In September, Southern Water was named as the most complained-against water company in the country, for the fourth year a row. The company is owned by a consortium of private equity and infrastructure investors and pension funds."

  8. Mal

    Water is a commodity and there is not a supermarket that does not sell it by the gallon. That was not the take I got from Joe's article -he detailed successive governments neglecting the water services that the whole infrastructure is now in crisis that requires a lot of money to put right.

    Joe believes in charging the public a tarrif plus taxes (the tarrifs are to bring the system upto scratch and taxes after that -at least that was my understanding). I made the mistake of thinking he was advocating for privatization but I was wrong he meant using private companies lower down to make the system more efficient -just like other Government departments use private contractors to build houses or roads etc.

    James Q

    Joe did not win me over on water charges but I do not dispute his expertise/knowledge on water treatment and supply -it is what he does.

  9. Larry

    You did not shoot his arguments down for lack of logic or common sense but because you "found Mr Dalton's article a tad condescending and thought the big projects in the middle east and 'loadza-dosh' must have gone to his head." Sounds resentful to me because of what income you think he has.

  10. James,

    There is a Code of Ethics for the engineering profession. Most water engineers work hard to ensure water is clean enough to drink and that wastewater is treated and discharged safely back to the environment despite your lack of appreciation for their efforts. I don’t seek to defend Southern Water for their sewage overflows nor do I advocate the Divestiture model of privatisation, in which Southern Water operate, for Ireland.

    I can assure you that my views are my own and I am not expressing them because of any payroll. I certainly hope I wouldn’t be hunted out of Buncrana for them.

    For what it’s worth I have spent more time trying to persuade utilities not to use ‘smart meters’. Some developing world utilities think technology is the answer to all their problems when they often need to address other issues first.

    I don’t claim any expertise in the intricacies of data transmission. I am not an Electrical or Electronic Engineer. I use the same technologies to monitor and transmit flow and pressure data in the water network that you use to send a text message. The health concerns about ‘smart meters’ aren’t a water contamination issue as the transmission device sits on top of the meter and doesn’t come into contact with the water. I would guess your concerns relate to possible issues with the data/radio signals and how they might interact with the human body. I would think that similar concerns have existed over the years regarding mobile phones, Wi-Fi, wireless radio and microwave ovens. Do you apply the full rigours of the Precautionary Principle to all of these?

  11. Christy Walsh

    Perhaps I should have elaborated. The profit private water companies earn compared to the lack of investment, quality service they provide is what I was trying to point out. A huge profit is surely the target and end game for those wanting privatisation and water charges. Also, I am sure Joe isn't in the Middle East because he was attracted by the scenery and mild climate. He obviously is savvy on the subject and the information is welcome a read. However I too am wary of people holding up Parchments claiming 'expertise'. I saw enough 'questionable' sorts at university to make me cautious of that. Also, just look at the abuse and corruption scandals that are widespread in all walks of life where deference was previously conferred. Trust is not an option.