The Report is now being considered by a Special Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee. They held their first meeting on 10th December 2016. They are due to report within three months of their first meeting and so should report by 9th March 2017. The issue is then expected to go to a vote in the Dáil (Parliament). In this article I offer my own analysis of the Report and my own view of the way forward. I cross-reference specific paragraph numbers of the Expert Commission Report throughout the article.

Initially it is worth restating the terms of reference of the Expert Commission as outlined in Chapter 1 (Introduction) of the Report:

“Assess and make recommendation on the funding of domestic public water services in Ireland and improvements in water quality, taking into account:
  • The maintenance and investment needs of the public water and waste water system on a short, medium and long-term basis;
  • Proposals on how the national utility in State ownership would be able to borrow to invest in water infrastructure;
  • The need to encourage water conservation, including through reviewing information campaigns on water conservation in other countries;
  • Ireland’s domestic and international environmental standards and obligations;
  • The role of the Regulator; and
  • Submissions from all interested parties.”
A flaw in the wording of the terms of reference was its stated objective of how to fund only “domestic” water services. Given that both domestic and commercial users need the same infrastructure to have access to water, and the capital intensive nature of this infrastructure, it is impossible to view funding of both separately.

Establishing Trust – Effective Regulation

The benefits of a single national water utility are recognised by the Expert Commission (4.5.2) as opposed to management of water services by 34 separate local authorities that pertained previously. The Expert Commission correctly identifies the need for the engagement of civil society (4.5.4) when implementing such a massive change. This is an area where Irish Water and the Government have failed up to now.

A total of 70 meetings/submissions from interested parties were received by the Expert Commission as outlined in Chapter 3 (Public Consultation). The public submissions reported an inconsistency and overall lack of transparency in the provision of water services over many years (3.7.1 – 3.7.2), unhappiness at the manner of the introduction of water charges and a consequent lack of trust in the political process related to this issue.

Creating trust is inextricably linked to effective regulation in the public interest. There are three separate regulatory agencies that deal with the national water utility which are:
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Commission for Energy Regulation (CER)
  • Public Water Forum
The EPA regulates the quality of drinking water supplied as well as the quality of all effluent discharges back to the environment. Their regulatory role is to pressurise Irish Water to ensure that Ireland is in compliance with its health and environmental obligations under the European Union (EU) Drinking Water Directive, Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and Water Framework Directive. In this regard their role is uncontroversial and they should have the support of all interested parties in these tasks. An area where they should arguably expand their role is in water abstraction licensing and charging. The lack of such a water abstraction system was highlighted by the Expert Commission (2.2.24), and previous to that by anti-water charges campaigners, and is something that should be addressed by the Oireachtas Committee.

The CER is the economic regulator and plays a crucial role in keeping Irish Water on their toes. All expenditure by Irish Water should be clearly justified to the CER acting in the taxpayer’s interest. The CER should hold Irish Water to account for all capital funding provided, ensuring that capital infrastructure projects are delivered on schedule and to budget. The CER should push for Irish Water to gradually become more efficient in its operations through a series of key performance measures. The Expert Commission expressed concern with regard to the long term (12 years) Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in place with the 34 local authorities (5.2.18) as a possible barrier to efficiency. This concern should be discussed by the Oireachtas Committee.

As I argued in my previous article I do not believe that the prospect of endless handouts from the taxpayer is a recipe for an efficient and cost effective utility. The goal should be for Irish Water to cover basic utility running costs from the tariff without drawing from the Exchequer. Here I am in disagreement with many of the public submissions and with the Expert Commission.

I completely agree with the Expert Commission view on the importance of the Public Water Forum (4.5.4 and 5.5.1). The Public Water Forum should provide a mechanism for the public, both from a user and contributor of funds point of view, to express their concerns and to have those concerns adequately addressed. It should have clear lines of communication with Irish Water, Government, the other regulatory agencies and any other relevant party. It must have the confidence of the people, otherwise it is not fulfilling its mandate. It should hold Irish Water to account, embarrassing them where necessary.

Funding of Water Infrastructure

The Report documents (Sections 2.2 and 2.3) some of the challenges for water infrastructure in Ireland. Ireland is fortunate to have one of the highest levels of water availability in the World. Despite this we manage to have boil water notices, lead contamination, antiquated pipelines, high levels of leakage (which the Report correctly describes as leaking not just water but also energy and public money (2.2.3)) and pollution incidents. Irish Water estimate that €13 billion in capital investment is required to bring infrastructure and service up to standard (2.4.26). There is little doubt that without such investment Ireland will be unable to comply with EU Drinking Water Directive and Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

The public consultation process reported a consensus, on this if little else, about the need for investment (3.6.1). The challenge is how to make that investment effective and efficient. Simply throwing money at the problem isn’t enough on its own. Given the stated capital requirement, the Expert Commission is silent on how this funding might be obtained. They mention a report (2.4.28) by the New Economy and Recovery Authority (NewEra), yet to be published, that is expected to consider this matter. In the absence of this the Expert Commission effectively abandons one of its terms of reference to consider “how the national utility in State ownership would be able to borrow to invest in water infrastructure”.

The Report is silent on the effectiveness or otherwise of the large scale Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT), or variation thereof, type contracts for water/wastewater treatment plants, many of which use different types of Project Finance mechanisms in place of traditional public procurement. Some public submissions expressed concern about relying on the private sector for such investment and of the transparency in the spending of taxpayer’s money (3.6.1). There is a clear need to ensure public oversight and accountability whichever funding mechanisms are employed for projects like these. How Irish Water and the regulatory agencies address this issue should be a key point of discussion for the Special Oireachtas Committee.

Accessing the required capital at the most competitive terms should be a top priority. The logic of moving Irish Water off the national balance sheet to escape the uncertain nature of Government funding (4.2.1), as originally recommended by Price Waterhouse Coopers[2], doesn’t make much sense if this results in a much higher cost of capital that would ultimately be passed on to the Irish people either in taxes or tariffs. Though this argument may be now rendered moot by the Eurostat determination that Irish Water is not independent of the state[3], it would be interesting to know how much this factor was considered as there is no mention of it in either the Expert Commission Report or the Price Waterhouse Coopers report. Perhaps the NewEra report will shed some light.

Metering, Usage and Conservation

One aspect of the Report (2.3.4 – 2.3.6 and 4.1.2) that has been seized upon by anti-water charges campaigners as vindicating their campaign is the data collected from the domestic meters, notwithstanding the irony of them relying on evidence from these “veritable tollbooths on the human right to water” in the words of Brendan Ogle of the Right2Water campaign. Paragraph 5.4.1 reports that 873,000 household meters have been installed out of a target of 1.4 million making that 62% achievement of the target. This is coincidentally similar to the level of bill payment for domestic customers claimed by Irish Water shortly prior to the suspension of charges. Data collected so far from these domestic meters suggests that Ireland could have the lowest per capita consumption of water in the World. Therefore, the anti-water charges campaigners argue, why do we need either meters or water charges?

The notion of metering for conservation was flawed and should never have been relied upon especially at the domestic level. Where conservation and metering go together is in measuring those larger commercial/industrial users who consume large quantities of water. The main arguments for metering should have been equitably charging for water and increased knowledge of the usage, distribution and water loss patterns in the network. Metering is a good engineering tool that is unfortunately regarded by some as a sinister stepping stone towards privatisation (3.5.2). Indeed, the revelation that usage is lower than previously thought, and that network leakage is higher, is a perfect illustration of the benefits of domestic metering – improved knowledge of the system. The leakage can now be localised and targeted. Perhaps this benefit, acknowledged in the Report (5.4.1), could also be acknowledged by the Right2Water movement. Pleasingly, anti-water charges campaigners already acknowledge the benefits of district metering, a positive outcome of this Report. District and customer metering are two parts of the water balance equation that allows water losses to be calculated and localised.

As regards explaining why Ireland might have the lowest per capita usage in the World there are a number of possibilities. One is that due to our climate there is limited demand for garden irrigation, something that is a major issue in more arid countries. Another is the common tendency when domestic meters are first installed for users to be 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 (making the argument for metering for conservation at the household level utterly superfluous). The limited long term user data and the fact that large parts of the country resisted meter installations cause a note of caution to be employed in making such a bold claim that Ireland has the lowest water usage in the World. It is certainly an interesting topic and I would look forward to seeing how patterns develop on this over the coming years. Either way I regard it as irrelevant to the case for charging and it actually boosts the case for metering contrary to the claims of the anti-water charges protestors.

Commercial Charging

Users of water outside of the domestic sector are considered in Sections 2.4.19 – 2.4.24 and 4.2.2 – 4.2.3 of the Report. The level of variation of commercial charging across the 34 local authorities was a surprise to me but probably shouldn’t have been. The most expensive (Wicklow County Council) charges almost double the cheapest (Kildare County Council) to commercial users. Consolidating commercial charging into a single national regime should have been a top priority. The CER plan to progress this in 2018. I think an explanation of why this could not have been progressed sooner is required.

The Report mentions difficulties in collecting payments for commercial charging. There is no mention on what exactly the current situation is in this regard but the Price Waterhouse Cooper report, that recommended establishing Irish Water, reported commercial payment levels of 52% in 2010, which is lower than the reported payment levels for domestic users despite all the controversy.

The public consultation highlighted concerns about domestic sector financial contributions compared to the commercial sector (3.6.3). Given the reported payment levels of the non-domestic sector and the variation in the commercial charging regime this concern is indeed justified. This is a scandalous situation and needs to be dealt with hopefully with full cross party and community support.

Ensuring Access to Water and Sanitation for all

A number of public submissions argued that water is a human right that should be free at the point of use (3.3.2). Following the United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution recognising the human right to water and sanitation in 2010[4], a number of countries have enshrined this right in their national constitutions. These countries continue to have domestic water charges however, something that is constantly ignored by the Right2Water campaign. As stated by the Expert Commission this is consistent with the approach of the UN special rapporteur for water and sanitation (4.3.8) and is indeed consistent with the approach of the majority of anti-water privatisation activists worldwide.

The whole notion of free allowances, above which a tariff will be charged, is a challenge for the water engineer. While I totally understand and empathise with the concerns of social activists who want to ensure the human right to water and sanitation to the most vulnerable, having to implement free allowances, further complicated by number of residents, age of any children, medical conditions, or any other mitigating factor, presents a logistical headache. Far better from an engineer’s point of view to have no universal free allowances (why should the rich have free allowances?) but to have a water affordability program ran by specialists in this area to ensure access to all who need it and the revenue stream provided to the utility to get on with the technical job. So, you can imagine my concern at the following recommendation (5.2.3) of the Expert Commission:

Each household that is connected to the public water supply receives an allowance of water and a corresponding allowance of wastewater that corresponds to the accepted level of usage required for domestic and personal needs without any direct charge being levied. This allowance should be related to the number of persons resident in the household and adjusted for special conditions.

The Report then goes on to suggest ways of determining this allowance while acknowledging that it is fraught with difficulty. All I can see here is hassle, arguments about what the allowance should be and a complete logistical nightmare to implement. A possible alternative would be a normal system of charges with a waiver for those currently entitled to a medical card thereby covering both those who cannot afford charges and those with exceptional needs on medical grounds without any additional administration.

The Report claims that charging for water above this free allowance will ensure Ireland is consistent with the “polluter pays principle” of the Water Framework Directive. I would describe it more as clutching at straws to provide political cover. Probably the most irritating paragraph (5.2.9) in the entire Report says:

What is proposed here does not amount to the provision of a ‘free allowance’ of water nor does it involve additional direct subsidies by the State to the water utility. Rather, the water utility will provide sufficient water to all citizens to cover their domestic and personal needs, and the costs of providing that water will be recovered from the State, which will be a customer of Irish Water, based on tariffs approved by CER.

Free allowances are being provided and water is being subsidized by the state in a manner that would be understood throughout the World. An entirely new interpretation of the English language is being created here just for the unique political context of Ireland. The above paragraph is a piece of political linguistic game playing and demeans those who put their name to it.

Compliance with European Law

A number of submissions expressed differing views on the legal interpretation of Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive (3.6.2), including from the European Commission (Appendix 14). This led some to argue that “it is difficult to propose viable alternatives to the current system if legal obligations are uncertain”. I believe that bickering over the legal interpretation of Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive is a distraction from the failure to properly discuss the case for water charges on their individual merits for the country, not on what we think the European Commission wants us to do.

I don’t think it is any doubt that it is in Ireland’s interest to do their utmost to comply with the EU Drinking Water Treatment and Urban Wastewater Treatment Directives and to strive to achieve the environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive.

Ensuring Public Ownership – Constitutional Guarantee

The risk of privatisation is one which never seems to go away. Many public submissions expressed a desire for a constitutional guarantee of water services in public ownership (3.2.1). The challenge here is how to satisfy concerns about privatisation without it having unintended consequences. Some anti-water privatisation campaigners regard the involvement of the private sector in water services provision in any way shape or form as privatisation. Yet a private company executing a project on behalf of the public utility for a specific service, such as constructing or upgrading infrastructure, meter installations or leak detection services is a long way from the full Divestiture model of privatisation pursued in England and Wales.

So a question for the Oireachtas Committee, and for the Irish public, is what exactly do we want to make unconstitutional? Only full Divestiture or something more? I do not believe it would be in the interest of water services in Ireland, or of the Irish taxpayer, to completely cut out the private sector. There is risk with private sector involvement. One legitimate concern that has been expressed is that the long term involvement of a private party will make the public utility dependent on their knowledge and put the private party in a position to game the situation to their own advantage. The private party will never give a reason why their services shouldn’t be employed. However, I believe that well designed contracts, with appropriate knowledge transfer, can overcome this challenge. Accountability and transparency is the key along with the desire to learn from any mistakes.

Bottling it on Water Tariffs

In Chapter 2 (Background) the Report outlines a brief timeline of the history of water charges in Ireland. The Report (2.1.1) highlights the three charging regimes brought about in rapid succession between the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 and the eventual decision in 2016 to suspend charging, as the Government sought to placate public hostility caused by the series of public relations disasters that harmed confidence in Irish Water.

The Expert Commission Report analyses different charging regimes (2.4.6 – 2.4.13) across the World, flat fees, volumetric, mixture of fixed fee and volumetric and rising block tariffs along with affordability measures (2.4.14 – 2.4.18) to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to water and sanitation. This analysis leads to the Expert Commission concluding in paragraph 4.7.4 that:

A number of independent reviews, both in Ireland and internationally, have come to the conclusion that a volumetric charging system based on metering, supported by a well-targeted affordability system, represents the approach that is most in line with best practice.

So that is pretty clear. The Expert Commission found that metering and charging for water is best international practice. However, then the Report goes on to state (4.7.5) that the original Irish Water charging framework, while being “consistent with established practice” was not able to “deliver enduring political support nor did it attract a sufficient degree of popular acceptance”. Consideration of why this happened was outside the Commission’s terms of reference but I offered my own perspective in my previous article. Consequently, the Commission recommended that domestic water charges not be retained and that funding revert to general taxation despite the risk that utility funding requirements could be “crowded out by demands from other parts of the system (4.7.3)”. This is a risk that is indeed borne out by international experience in cases where the tariff is so low the public utility struggles to operate. The utility ends up begging the Government to either raise tariffs or increase taxpayer contributions to water services and competes with other spending priorities in this regard.

The Report (4.7.7) then states in bold that:

making recommendations that meet the standard criteria and that may theoretically align with best practice but do not take account of the relevant background and context in Ireland – including the criterion of acceptability – would not be useful.

This conclusion is weak and seeks to license the abandoning of best practices, as recognised by the Expert Commission, for short term political expediency.

 A Suggested Way Forward

The Expert Commission refer to the sincerely held but “frequently irreconcilable” views of the various public submissions (6.1). In the hope of establishing some common ground let me state areas that I think I am in broad agreement with the anti-water charges campaigners:
  • Unjust nature of the austerity burden of which water charges was the last straw
  • Shambolic manner of introduction of water charges
  • Need for accountability and transparency in the spending of taxpayer’s money and lack thereof up to now
  • Legal interpretation of Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive
  • Benefits of district metering
  • Increased knowledge from domestic customer metering (They would be loath to admit that one but they relied on this knowledge in advancing one of their arguments)
  • Need to access capital funding in most cost effective way (If that means keeping utility on national balance sheet, so be it)
  • Need to consolidate charging regime and maximise revenue from commercial users
  • Need to reform water abstraction system
  • Need to ensure human right to water and sanitation for the most vulnerable
The Right2Water movement frequently cite the intellectual colossus of the global anti-water privatisation movement Maude Barlow who stated that “The Irish system of paying for water and sanitation services through progressive taxation and non-domestic user fees is an exemplary model of fair, equitable and sustainable service delivery for the entire world”. This statement doesn’t stand up to the minimum of scrutiny. Exemplary water services funded through progressive taxation is nothing more than an ideological construct. It doesn’t exist anywhere in the World and certainly not in Ireland. Wherever it has been tried (apart from Ireland it was tried in the 1960s by some African governments) it has failed utterly.

The international examples cited by the Right2Water movement as allegedly backing their argument utterly fail to do so. All the cases of re-municipalisation they refer to retain domestic water charges. The European Citizen’s Initiative on the human right to water calls for affordable domestic water charges[5]. The submission to the UN rapporteur on water and sanitation by the Detroit anti-water privatisation campaigners, with which Maude Barlow herself was involved, calls for affordable domestic water charges[6]. All of this is ignored by the Right2Water campaign.

Eddie Molloy writing in the Irish Independent cited the example of Professor Tom Keane and Mary Harney, who through patient and diligent articulation of the merits of the case eventually managed to overcome public scepticism and political opposition to successfully reform the provision of cancer services, achieving greater efficiency in the spending of taxpayer’s money as well as a more effective service[7]. The current trajectory of events suggests we are set on the exact opposite course in the case of water services. There is nothing to welcome in this. It is a disaster for water services in the country and a complete national embarrassment. Ireland looks set to be the case study for future water policy researchers who want an example of how things can go wrong.

Under the “Confidence and Supply Agreement” for the Fine Gael minority Government it is stated that “those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who have not”. It would indeed be an absolute disgrace if they were treated any less favourably. I find it absolutely depressing that this might be the issue that dominates proceedings at the Special Oireachtas Committee.

It really is now up to the Special Oireachtas Committee to decide the way forward. It is an all-party Committee on which all strands of opinion on water services are represented. Those Committee members who are unequivocal in their opposition to water charges will push their agenda and are on the cusp of declaring victory. I believe their victory will be a hollow one as the challenge of water services provision will remain.

The rest of the Committee has a choice. They could put their own perceived short term political advantage to one side and act in the best interest of the country by articulating the need for water charges. They could acknowledge that ignoring what is recognised as best international practice just because this is Ireland is not good enough. They should be humble and acknowledge that yes mistakes were made and the wrong position was adopted by differing parties over many years. Political parties tend to behave opportunistically when in opposition then make well-meaning but often ham-fisted attempts to do the right thing when in Government. Going forward they should resist the temptation to maximise political capital for every mistake made in the very challenging task of reforming and running the water sector.

The European Commission should not be a determining influence in this important policy decision for Ireland. Pressurising Ireland into having water charges will not work. It is also counter to the principle of subsidiarity.

There needs to be transparency and accountability going forward. Constantly hiding behind commercial confidentiality is not good enough. The people need to know why their money is being spent. Running a water utility is expensive. The case for spending this money needs to be made. Engaging with civil society should be an ongoing process. People need to have confidence that their concerns are addressed. If they don’t we are failing.

Articulating the need for water charges will be very challenging. It would take courage from the politicians. Are they capable of it? I do not know. There have been many villains and few heroes in this long running saga. The Expert Commission Report offers the easier life for them. I urge them to take the road less travelled. Show passion and vision. In the long run it will make all the difference. I believe that history, and the people, will thank them.

[1] Expert Commission Report Available at:

[2] Price Waterhouse Coopers Report Available at

[3] Eurostat Determination Available at

[4] UN General Assembly Resolution Available at

[5] Right2WaterEU, available at

[6] Blue Planet  Submission Available at

[7] Eddie Molloy, Irish Independent Available at