Belfast Telegraph

Either we pay for water or we ask our children to pay

If politicians reject water charges we may have to accept health and education cuts, says Angela McGowan

Even with the relatively heavy rainfall that Northern Ireland experiences every year, clean water is actually a scarce resource. There are large costs involved in the provision of clean drinking water to households as well as businesses in terms of both infrastructure investment and maintenance as well as running costs.

In 2009, the European Union's Environment Agency called for all water use throughout Europe to be metered and charged across all sectors according to the volume used.

Yet Northern Ireland is different from virtually every other country in Europe as it remains exempt from household water charges.

Our antiquated water infrastructure has been recognised as a major problem for quite some time.

Indeed, back in 1999, the Department of the Environment launched a consultation on water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland and there was much debate about how water provision should be delivered, priced and regulated.

That consultation document - which was published fully 12 years ago - also highlighted the urgent need to upgrade Northern Ireland's decaying capital stock.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will witness a lot of finger-pointing and blame-allocation for the thousands of households in Northern Ireland who had no running water for more than a week over the Christmas period.

But our decaying water infrastructure is the primary reason for this crisis and could be the reason for a more serious crisis in the future. When regions neglect water they risk collapse, because no commodity is more essential.

Investment in Northern Ireland's water system requires a massive amount of funding. It requires funding up front, but it also requires future financial outlay to ensure maintenance and access further down the line. I doubt that there is a single person in Northern Ireland who does not now recognise that Government resources are currently under huge stress.

The provision of an upgraded water infrastructure system will come at a price. Yet politicians are still assuring the voters that it should be supplied to them for free.

But without imposing water charges, any additional public investment in water will result in cuts elsewhere.

The public should not be duped; they should understand that officials will have to shift resources from education or health, or perhaps another department, to sort out our water infrastructure, because the block grant is finite.

Thus water investment and future supply will never be free - the cost will either be up-front or it will be indirect. Any potential assistance from the UK Treasury would require a commitment to raise some form of revenue locally to fund water provision - as is the case in the rest of the UK and Europe.

The cost of our water provision to households needs to be up front and transparent.

Local households that can afford to make a contribution should and to avoid pushing pensioners and low income households into financial hardship support, measures such as the provision of water vouchers can be introduced.

The failure of Northern Ireland to provide itself with a decent water infrastructure in the 21s tcentury is a disgrace.

Passing on such a legacy to the next generation would be unforgivable so time should not be wasted by pointing accusatory fingers.

Now is the time to find solutions and revenue streams so that the necessary investment in our water system can be made.

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