I will begin by commending Fine Gael for bringing what could be considered a timely motion before the House regarding the delivery and infrastructure of water services across the Irish Republic. The motion reflects a similar motion brought before the House this time last year. We could witness severe weather conditions as an annual occurrence, and dealing with them cannot be explained as a once off or something that happens once every 500 years. It should now be planned for and strategically managed rather than explained as unexpected.
Fine Gael brought the motion before the House yesterday evening and there are a number of matters I would like to bring to people's attention. One of the most notable facets of the Fine Gael proposal from last year was an ambiguity about a national utility and I am glad to see that in the wording of today's motion, it has been firmly described as a private sector agency. There is some merit to the concept of a national utility in that it can deliver quality and provision nationally while also laying out a strategic plan for the delivery of water nationally.
There are 34 local authorities in the country and I would be interested to see how a national utility could incorporate these. More important is the variance in the group water schemes across the country, which are separate from the local authorities that operate. There is a strategic benefit from such an approach and as we have seen in recent weeks, the supply of water is critical not only to households, but to businesses and the daily operation of this country. We need to revisit the area and see a new plan.
Perhaps 90% or 100% of people in this House went for a day or two without water over the Christmas period. The hotel in which I stayed last evening does not have water from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. Urban dwellers in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway can no longer take for granted the availability of tapped water. While a supply of tapped water must be guaranteed to householders, I query whether this is possible under the existing structure.
As the Minister is present, I propose to raise a specific issue with him. Last July, my party colleague, Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, submitted a question to the European Commission on the delivery of water services in various Irish regions. He asked the Commission to indicate which Irish local authorities had applied for and received funding for water conservation measures under European Regional Development Fund programmes. The Commission's reply stated:
[N]o expenditure has yet been incurred in relation to water conservation investment. On the basis, however, of information provided by the managing authority of the programme concerned (the BMW Regional Assembly) it is possible that the bulk of the works will be undertaken in 2011 and 2012.
Will the Minister confirm that, despite being able to access European Union assistance for the delivery of water services, especially in the area of water conservation, a number of Irish local authorities have not submitted applications for such funding? If the local authorities in question have submitted applications for EU funding, when does the Minister expect them to draw it down?
We have read recently that five or six local authorities have experienced difficulties with water supply as a result of conservation and delivery problems. A minimum of 40% of supply nationally is lost through leakage and other forms of damage. Is it the case that funding available from the European Union to address conservation problems has not been availed of by local authorities? I can furnish the Minister, who is responsible for overseeing local government, with a list of the relevant authorities.
The problems experienced over the Christmas highlighted how we use our water resources. The main difficulty encountered by households was not that they did not have access to potable water for drinking but that they did not have water for other household purposes. This is because Ireland, to my knowledge, is the only country in the northern hemisphere where water of the same quality is used for drinking and other household activities such as flushing toilets, bathing and showering and for appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines.
I am not sure how long the Minister will continue in office but a number of simple measures could be taken in the short term. As he correctly noted, the production of water is not free but comes at a substantial cost. Ireland produces drinkable water for every conceivable means of consumption and usage. Surely another approach is possible. For example, we could ensure that households have means of capturing rainwater. This would be feasible and would make sense given the abundance of rainwater in this country. I strongly recommend that all future residential and commercial developments should have integrated rainwater capture and storage systems to ensure they are self-sufficient and can store water. Demand on existing reservoirs would reduce if such systems were standard in all new buildings. For this reason, they should be required in the initial planning designs for housing estates or major commercial developments. Such a measure would reduce consumption of high quality drinking water.
Water services were the subject of debate in the House almost 12 months ago to the day. By this time next year, the Government will have changed. It has become obvious that severe weather conditions are here to stay. The time to plan for further extreme weather is now because the excuse that these are one-off events is no longer valid.