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The water crisis: not just about the money

Much of the media coverage of Northern Ireland’s recent water crisis honed in on the poor state of the region’s infrastructure, and how badly Northern Ireland Water (NIW) needs to improve it. But in fact, that was only part of the problem.

No-one would deny that the region’s creaking water infrastructure is in bad shape. Replacement work is ongoing, but many water mains are still around 70 years old, and are no match for the freezing climate experienced this winter. Moreover, a 2010 government report found that leakage causes the loss of 181M.l of water every single day.

Just as problematic as ageing mains is the fact that the public does not seem to accept water as a billable product.

Infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland failed to make it to the top of the priority list in recent decades thanks to its direct rule by Westminster until 2007 and its small population of around 1.6M people. It was an adverse situation made worse by over 30 years of the Troubles, as comparison with Scotland makes clear.

Scottish Water, like NIW, is government-owned. Yet Scotland has had around 10 years of “serious investment” in water infrastructure, while Northern Ireland has managed just five, says University of Ulster senior lecturer in environmental engineering Alan Strong.

“With the Troubles, the investment has not come on infrastructure,” he says. “Other things took priority.”

Sold for profit

The need to get that investment going − most likely through creating water charges on top of the regional rates that Northern Ireland residents already pay − is obvious.

But just as problematic as ageing mains is the fact that the public does not seem to accept water as a billable product.

Surveys have shown repeatedly that there is a great deal of resistance to that concept in Northern Ireland − a major factor in the government’s deferral of the debate on bringing in water charges from 2007 to 2009, and then again to 2012.

The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland found that people have “strong feelings of ownership” towards water.

Public feeling goes further than simply not wanting to spend money. The public is happy for part of its rates to pay for water supply. It is the idea of a bill specifically for water that is problematic.

Research by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland (CCNI) in 2007 found that people have “strong feelings of ownership” towards water in a way they do not about other utilities. The idea of commodifying water does not sit well − 92% of people surveyed were opposed to the water and sewerage privatisation, and believed water should not be sold for profit.

Moreover, the public has little incentive to save water under the current system. Rates are dictated by property value with no link to actual water use, and the proportion of rates that goes towards water is not defined. The CCNI found that people therefore felt incentivised to use and even waste water.

Putting it off

This lack of transparency of rates, and the feeling that water supply shouldn’t be commercialised, combine to put pressure on NIW and to make politicians put off water charges again and again, says Strong.

“People become so accustomed to a steady supply,” he says. “The public have to start to appreciate more the value of water. There has to be some catching up done.”

Perhaps there will be, as the shock of this winter continues to resonate. The interruption of supply to 40,000 homes was a jolt towards the reality of what it takes to get water to the tap, and how badly things can go wrong.

“The public have to start to appreciate more the value of water. There has to be some catching up done.”

Alan Strong, University of Ulster

Talk of water reform always starts to swirl around controversy. For example, after four NIW directors were sacked over corruption charges in March 2010, the Stormont assembly began to debate whether water services should actually be renationalised.

This time, however, the fact that the public has been directly affected and is looking for answers means the government might feel ready to stop talking in circles about reform, and impose the charges that have been discussed for years.

“The time might be opportune to look at that again,” agrees Strong.

What happened this winter was unacceptable. But the aftermath of public sentiment could be just the right springboard for the kind of cultural and attitudinal change that will make the task of bringing much-needed money into NIW’s coffers happen a great deal more smoothly.

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