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Following the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General's Annual Report for 2010 this week, Mick tabled a question on Tuesday (September 20th) during the Dail's new Topical Issues session. The report revealed that Unnacounted for Water (UFW) in Ireland runs at more than twice the OECD average of 20%, in spite of an investment of over €1 billion in water supply and conservation in the last ten years. Vast amounts of water are lost through leakages in the system. In sharing time with Labour TD Aodhán Ó'Ríordáin, Mick drew on his experiences from his years in the construction industry. He suggested that the Government should create employment in the industry by replacing the leaking pipes. The exchange between the Deputies and Minister of State Fergus O'Dowd is below and you can watch the footage here.

Topical Issues: The need to deal with the leakages in the water system

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to discuss the findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on water leakage. I am sharing time with Deputy Mick Wallace.

I do not intend to spend much time on this. In effect, the report suggested that in regard to water leakage, Ireland appears to have twice the OECD average of unaccounted-for water. It stated that overall the average percentage of unaccounted-for water was approximately 41.48% in 2009, a marginal increase on the 2008 figure of 41.2%.

I am a great believer in the levering of local charges and believe that local authorities should have the authority so to do. I am a tax and spend kind of guy. If one believes in public services, as I do, someone has to pay for them. I have no issue with the water charge per se. However, it would be very difficult for us as Deputies working in local areas or as national politicians to convince the public that a water levy or charge or water metering can be justified when the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report indicates such a level of unaccounted-for water.

Various regions have issues with their water supply. We are well aware, as will be the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, about the issues in Galway city. Deputy Michael McNamara assures me that issues relating to the water supply in Ennis are as bad as they ever were. In my constituency there have been ongoing water pressure issues in the Killester-Donnycarney area.

It is imperative for us to convince those who will be charged this levy that finances accrued from it will be put back into the water system in order that they may have confidence in it. I do not find it reasonable that anyone should expect we can front-load that investment before such a levy is in place, but we must ensure the public sees the connection between the charge and the improvement in the service. If one lives in an area where, as has happened in recent years, there have been annual major water shortages because of the poor water infrastructure in the city, or if one lives in an area where cryptosporidium dances through one’s tap on a regular basis, or there is discoloration or whatever, it is very difficult for a public representative to make that connection, especially when people see figures such as these. We must convince the public that we can ring-fence these moneys for the improvement of the water service.

Mick Wallace: The notion that 40% of the water supply is leaking into the ground is damning and the notion of bringing water from the River Shannon, at a cost of €450 million, only to have almost half of it leaking into the ground in Dublin and places like it, is outrageous. From building on the streets of Dublin over the years, I know that a great number of the pipes which are old and made of corroded steel must be replaced. When we were paving the streets, we came across many such pipes but were not allowed to replace them because that was not on the schedule at the time. At times we could actually see water coming up through the ground. Even though it would have been part of our work as civil engineering contractors, we were not allowed to change the pipes. It was a terrible waste.

If the Government is to do anything about water, surely controlling the level of waste must be a top priority. I agree with the Government tackling different elements of waste in the system throughout society, but I also believe there must be a greater emphasis on investment in the water infrastructure, tackling the problem of leakage and, at the same time, creating major employment. Replacing these pipes will be a very labour intensive project, with at least 80% of the cost going for labour and 20% for materials. It would be a very good move by the Government to get involved in this.

Fergus O'Dowd: I thank the Deputies for their comments. As the report yesterday by the Comptroller and Auditor General shows, there is a real problem in Ireland with unaccounted-for water, with losses in 2009 ranging from in excess of 21% to in excess of 58% across counties, a slight increase on the position reported for 2008. I agree with both Deputies that these levels of leakage are far too high and that progress in addressing the problem has been far too slow. Tackling this problem was one of the key motivations behind the Government’s decision to establish Irish Water.

A significant proportion of unaccounted-for water is due to leaks in the water supply system. Such leaks can occur in both the mains distribution network and on the customer side of the connections. Water conservation has been identified as a key priority under the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government’s water services investment programme 2010 to 2012. The programme provides for the commencement of water conservation contracts to the value of €321 million over the programme period, subject to the overall budgetary position.

The primary objective of water conservation is to reduce water loss and leakage in the distribution networks to an economic level and to address high levels of unaccounted-for water. Reducing leakage to zero would be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive. The aim is to achieve an economic level of leakage whereby it costs more to make further reductions in water loss than to produce additional water.

In the past ten years, €168 million was invested in water conservation. Most of the effort to date has been focused on putting in water management systems to allow for active leakage control and better planning of mains rehabilitation. At this stage, most local authorities have prepared water mains rehabilitation strategies which have allowed a significant acceleration in the approval of mains rehabilitation contracts and works this year.

Ireland is unique among OECD countries in not charging households for water. The programme for Government provides for the introduction of water charges based on a new and fair funding model and this is also a requirement of the agreement between Ireland and the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The programme for Government proposes that water meters will be installed in households connected to public water supplies and that a new charging system will be introduced with water charges based on usage.

Experience from the metering of the non-domestic sector and from metering of some group water supplies would suggest that customer side leakage levels are a significant factor in overall unaccounted-for water. Installing water meters encourages households to reduce consumption, use water efficiently and fix leaks where these are identified. Metered charges are also the fairest way to charge for water. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is preparing a strategy to implement the new charging regime.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: I will comment only briefly because I took up so much of Deputy Wallace’s time. I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I still maintain that a large-scale engagement with the public is needed to make the connection between the charge and the investment necessary for solving the displacement problem.

Mick Wallace: In the current economic climate, given the effect of austerity measures on the ordinary people of this country and given that any money raised from water metering is unlikely to come back into the system and help to improve it, we should concentrate on fixing the pipes, introducing more cost-effective measures and more environmentally friendly ways of providing water supplies for households. The latter would also help to create a great deal of employment.

Today’s edition of The Irish Times contains an article by Paul Krugman in which he discusses austerity measures and emphasises the need for growth-oriented policies. I am of the view that a major investment on the part of the Government in dealing with water wastage would represent money well spent in both the short and long term. Everyone states that it will cost too much to deal with this problem. Everything costs too much now but, in the long term, an investment of the nature I have outlined would be money well spent.

Fergus O'Dowd: I agree with what the Deputies have said. In my capacity as Minister of State, I visited the counties with the highest levels of unaccounted for water. I have already visited areas in Roscommon, south Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway and I intend to travel to other counties.

It is essential that this matter be addressed. I agree that if we can attract buy-in from the public in respect of this process, it must be based on a programme of significant and planned reductions in the levels of unaccounted for water over a period of years. I have discussed this matter with a number of local authorities and I have been informed that it may take more than a couple of years to bring about such reductions. This is due to the fact that when one water main is repaired, another will burst and so on. The Deputies are correct that a better and more progressive system which is fairer and efficient must be put in place.

I wish to point out to Deputy Wallace that I have been informed that much of the infrastructure relating to newer builds is quite bad. I know the Deputy, in the context of any construction projects with which he is or was involved, is not culpable in this regard. However, many of the materials used by certain builders have proven to be substandard and this will give rise to significant problems when we begin to introduce water metering. When the Government receives and discusses the report it commissioned in respect of Irish Water, the relevant committee will engage in a full debate on it in order that any and all issues of concern to Members might be listened to and, if possible, acted upon.

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