The Water Bomb of Ireland is Ready to Come Off

This post shows how water is a slow-ticking bomb in the European policy domain, that many more protests and political fights are set to happen in the years to come in that area. Europe is used to good life with unlimited resources, such as water; the reality, alas, is different, and the people are not used to this, especially the baby-boomers.

As an illustration of this, last month, thousands of people in Ireland protested because of the government’s plan to charge higher fees for water. The scale of the protest is unprecedented for Europe when it comes to the issues of utilities. According to this BBC article, almost 100 demonstrations run throughout Ireland in October and some 120 000 people gathered to protest in them. The biggest crowd in Dublin was about 10 000 people with some few dozen smaller protests taking place around the city as well. The fate of the Irish government seems to be connected to as basic an issue as providing drinking water to its people at a reasonable cost.

The importance of uninterrupted, safe and affordable water supply is usually well understood by politicians. The best way to become unpopular is to mess up with drinking water. And the topic has been hot on the international agenda since the 1990s, when the plans or actual privatization of water have sparked intense protests and violence in many countries, including Bolivia, Indonesia, France, Malaysia, Mexico and Azerbaijan. The anger of people was linked to the fact that private investors would come and help putting in place a more modern infrastructure and more metering with subsequent rise in the water charges in order to pay back the investment in long-term contracts, typically encompassing 25 years.

The global project of water privatization has failed, and most governments now resort to public companies for water supply and sanitation, which are often a) over-staffed and lack efficiency in the way they are run; b) subsidized by the government as they are not self-sufficient; c) do not have the funds to invest in water systems with figures being as appalling as 40-60% of water being lost in the systems; and d) unable to promote metering of consumption and charging based on the size of a household – a mechanism well known to encourage water waste, and increasing costs not only for expensive treatment of drinking water, but also expensive treatment of higher volumes of sewage. The average consumption of water per person per day in Ireland is above 500 liters per capita per day, whereas the necessary amount for a decent life-style is 50 liters.

All in all, this is just a sign of how turbulent this policy arena is. Much more tensions and controversies are there to happen, but these should not come at a surprise. Water remains a deeply political issue.

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