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Private Pillagers have their Eyes on Our Water

23/12/07

Despite Bertie Ahern’s u-turn on school water charges in the Twenty-Six Counties there remains a number of serious questions to be answeBertie Ahernred in relation to the issue. 

His advice to schools to ‘hold onto’ their water charge bills is a classic piece of Ahern.  His further suggestion of a ‘transition period’ until 2009 is a classic piece of Fianna Fáil populism.  The public, however, shouldn’t take their eye off the ball on this one.

It has emerged over recent weeks that many schools in the Twenty-Six counties are facing massively increased water charges.  For some schools, these annual water bills now exceed €10,000 (£7,000).  It has also emerged that no standard system exists for the metering of (or charging for) water across the state.  While some schools are paying exorbitant rates, others pay nothing at all.

The impetus for the charging of schools for water emanates from the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which is scheduled to come into full effect in 2010.  The primary objective of the WFD is to achieve a minimum of ‘good’ water standards for all waters within the EU area by 2015.  As with so much of the EU project, it is the means that are to be used to achieve this laudable objective that are highly questionable.

Part of this directive requires that a whole range of commercial and non-commercial users – including primary schools - pay for the water that they use.  Indeed the Dublin government only narrowly succeeded in attaining a reprieve for domestic water users back in 1999.

The EU directive is based upon the ‘polluter pays’ principal which holds that those who use resources and create pollution – in this case foul water – should pay proportionately to the amount of the resource that they use, or the waste that they create.

Commenting on the school water charge controversy, éirígí chairperson Brian Leeson said:

“While almost everyone agrees with the polluter pays principal with regard to commercial and industrial ventures, it is impossible to justify charging our schools every time a five-year-old flushes a toilet or washes their hands.

“As ever, the EU is guilty of promoting a free market agenda at the expense of the welfare of the vast majority of citizens.  Would it not be infinitely more sensible for the Dublin government to assist schools reduce their water usage through investment in water-saving and reuse devices and through familiarising water-users within the schools with the steps that they can take to reduce the amount of water they use?

“There have been a lot of questions asked in relation to the school water charges scandal.  People are rightly asking why the charges exist, why are they so high and why should schools have to pay them at all?  All good questions, but we in éirígí would like to ask one more.  Where is the money going?

“While, in theory, the money raised from these charges goes to the local councils to help pay for the cost of provision of clean water and disposal of foul water, the practise is somewhat different.  In many cases the local authorities are working hand in hand with private capital to build and maintain these treatment facilities.  This is being done through both ‘Public Private Partnerships’ and direct tenders.  People should be in no doubt that this is simply privatisation by the back door, with the local council acting as a middleman and nominal overseer.

“Nor should there be any doubt that this process is only the thin end of the wedge for full privatisation of the water supply and waste water disposal.  If the people of the Twenty-Six Counties allow it, they will soon be buying their water directly from a private company.  As with the bin charges before them, water charges initially only applied to commercial businesses.  However, the net is widening with schools and all non-domestic users now getting hit.  The logical conclusion of this process will see everyone, including domestic households, paying.

“In parallel to an ever widening pool of users getting charged for their water we are already seeing the encroachment of private companies into the whole arena.  With time we will see ‘de-regulation’ of the market where private companies and councils will compete with each other and then, eventually, the councils will withdraw services completely leaving the citizens of this state at the mercy of the ‘free’ market.                  

“We are thankfully some distance away from this doomsday scenario and it will not come to pass if enough people become active in opposing the sell-off of yet another of our natural resources.  Twenty years ago, too few of us paid attention to what Ray Burke was up to when he gave away the Corrib Gas field and set the scene for the giveaway for all of Ireland’s hydrocarbon reserves.  Let’s not repeat that mistake with our water reserves.”

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