I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the House.
Water Services: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:
recognises the social and economic hardship caused by water restrictions and disruptions for families and local businesses;
recognises that an inefficient, outdated and fragmented water network has contributed to drinking water supply problems across the State;
notes with concern that on average 43% of Ireland's treated drinking water supply is lost through unidentified leaks;
notes that problems associated with water shortages were discussed in Dáil and Seanad Éireann in January 2010 with little action taken since then to avoid a repeat of similar problems;
and calls on Government to:
establish a single publicly owned water utility company to take over responsibility for water investment and mains management on a national basis;
establish a new Utilities Commission to merge existing regulators for utilities and to take responsibility for regulating a new water utility company;
re-allocate future water funding from the Exchequer to prioritise water conservation by investment in water mains weather proofing; and
examine all engineering resources of the State to ensure a rapid remedy to widespread burst water mains.
I welcome the Minister to the House for this debate on what is an essential resource, that is, the water resource utilised by the country not only for consumption by the citizens but also for business, agriculture and many other uses. It is a vital and valuable resource.
To put the issue in its proper context, Ireland is a very small island nation surrounded by water. We have higher than average rainfall, which is reflected in our many green fields, lakes and rivers throughout the country. One would think there would not be a problem with water supply and water quality but as we are all aware and certainly from recent experience, especially that of only a year ago, the consistent supply of clean drinking water is a significant problem.
The average demand for drinking water in Dublin alone is 540 million litres a day. The four water treatment plants in operation in Dublin were designed to supply 518 million litres of water. The capital city, therefore, is almost up to its maximum capacity. By 2031 it is expected that the demand for water in Dublin will increase to 800 million litres a day. That alone points to a major problem to ensure an adequate supply of water to the capital.
The problem is not confined only to the capital. Many towns and villages have had no water for a protracted period since the recent big freeze. Some people had no water for weeks on end. Some in the larger urban areas had water restrictions while others had no water.
We are surrounded by water. It is falling as I speak. Having put the issue in context we must ask ourselves why this problem persists. Why do we have water shortages? We have some statistics that point to abnormal leakage from our water networks. The leakage amounts to 43% of clean water being lost nationally through substandard pipe networks. That is a problem we experience in normal times but the problem is exacerbated during times such as the big freeze we experienced lately. We have seen the impact of that where networks have been obliterated during the thaw. Pipe networks were frozen and when the thaw came, the pipes burst.
Why do we have the problems to the extent we are experiencing? I am aware our neighbours in Northern Ireland are experiencing huge problems also but we must strive to improve our water network system to ensure we do not have the water restrictions and cuts we have experienced which are having a very negative impact on quality of life and also on businesses trying to keep open. I refer to the hospitality trades in particular. Hotels, restaurants, shops and retailers are trying to do business every day which is almost impossible if they do not have access to a clean water supply.
On the question of networks, we must ask ourselves about the quality and installation of our network. We have seen as a result of recent developments that large parts of our water infrastructure were not installed to a proper standard or to a proper depth in the ground. Many of the new housing estates recently experienced burst water mains. Stopcocks and water mains froze because the network was not installed to an adequate standard. I do not necessarily blame Government for that. Local authorities and developers had a major part to play in installing these networks.
I am aware that many of these networks must be signed off by competent people in the engineering profession. It is often the case that they are signed off and submitted to the local authority but sometimes when the local authorities take them in charge, they are left to deal with the problems. We must ask what we can do to eliminate the occurrence of that problem in future. I have said this to local authority management and to others. Where private estates have experienced burst water mains due to inadequate infrastructure or poor installation standards, why have the developers, or the engineers who signed off on those networks, not been pursued by local authorities for the costs involved in putting these networks right? I am sure the engineers who signed off on the networks have professional indemnity and if they have been wrong they should be held to account, as should the developers. Local authorities and taxpayers should not be left with the problems. I urge the Minister, through his office and his officials, to ensure that local authorities pursue rogue developers who did not install water networks to a proper standard.
I appreciate that more than €1 billion per annum is being invested in water programmes. The Minister recently opened a new water treatment system in Waterford. This system was badly needed and very welcome. Unfortunately, there is not the same level of investment in water supply. We still have thousands of kilometres of old cast iron or lead piping in our older towns and villages. Little or no maintenance has been carried out on these by the relevant local authorities. Fine Gael believes this area needs to be approached in a more responsible and accountable manner. The current legislation designates 29 county councils and five city councils as water authorities with the full responsibility of providing a clean and adequate network to the country. Each local authority has its own priorities. One might see the roads network as a bigger priority than the water network and another might prioritise the water network over roads.
Fine Gael believes we need an overall public utilities system that will hold all local authorities to a consistent and equal standard throughout the country. To do that we must ensure local authorities and their officials, and the general populace, understand the true value of our water network and infrastructure and the value of water itself. This will require a whole reorganisation of how we manage water networks. It is very clear that the eye was taken off the ball during the boom years. Government and local authorities have been playing catch-up with developers and new development. They have taken their eye off the ball with regard to consistent regular maintenance programmes on water conservation and network renewal.
How many local authorities know the true value or have done a full evaluation of the entire water network in their jurisdictions? Do they have IT systems that keep an up-to-date evaluation of the asset value and age of their pipe networks, when they were last maintained, where there are leaks and the priority areas that need attention? If we are to continue with investment, we can no longer afford to invest in water networks on an ad hoc basis, with various priorities in different local authority areas. A national survey of the entire water pipe infrastructure should be done. Its condition, age and projected life should be clearly evaluated. Under normal conditions, even without freezing temperatures, we are leaking more than 43% of our natural water resource, which is totally unacceptable. A national data capture programme to digitally record, map and establish an accurate database and records of all such information in a national water asset management system should be implemented. That is important, before any more money is invested in water infrastructure.
The following proposal is a personal one and goes beyond Fine Gael policy. A regulatory authority should be established with legislative powers to hold local authorities or water agents, that is whoever is responsible for the delivery of water networks, to account, and to ensure proper standards in water delivery and quality. The Environmental Protection Agency and the local authorities have various roles at present. Some of those roles could be taken from the EPA and assigned to the public water utility and new regulatory regime. This already happens in the energy sector, where the Commission for Energy Regulation ensures there is adequate investment is the electricity networks. Water is as important a resource as electricity. Fine Gael put a value on that resource, as does the Green Party.
One might ask where the money for this will come from. All political parties have had to deal with this bugbear. Fine Gael has not been afraid to broach this subject. We have said we are committed to serious reform of how local authorities manage water networks. We will put a value on water, as a resource, and charge domestic users where they are found to be wasting water over and above an allowance, that should be free, for daily household usage. In that way, one would bring more accountability to water usage in domestic households. The only people paying for water are businesses, who are already stretched to the limit with various other overheads to keep their companies going. Businesses are failing on a daily basis. We cannot expect investment in adequate water supply and quality if we do not come up with new ways of managing our water network, supply and quality. This is how we need to reform water supply.
I urge the Minister to look at other initiatives to incentivise public buildings, such as schools, that have high water usage to harvest water. This is a positive suggestion that I am sure the Minister will support. There are many grants for schools and other buildings. The Department of Education and Skills provides the summer works scheme for schools, for example. However, a school that proposes to install a rain-water harvesting system, which could cost up to €7,000, will not qualify for the summer works scheme. In the long term, such a grant could see every school install a sustainable water system. All schools would not be done overnight, but over time we would have a more sustainable model of water usage in our communities. That scheme could be rolled out to other areas of water usage.
I am critical of the Government and how it has managed water systems in the past. I am trying to be positive in proposing new and better ways to manage our water system in the future, because that is what our country deserves.
I second the motion proposed by Senator Coffey and I urge the Minister to adopt a number of the issues Senator Coffey has proposed. He has been reasonable and has tabled a well crafted motion that raises many issues the Minister could well adopt.
I compliment the local authority staff in Castlebar and County Mayo. I am sure all local authority staff throughout the country could be equally complimented. They have done tremendous work in the last month, particularly in the very difficult weather conditions we experienced over the Christmas and the new year period. They worked tirelessly to bring water to many families, homes and businesses that were without water during Christmas and the new year.
In recent years, some very shabby work was carried out by developers and builders. We are now paying the cost for that in leakages, breakages and frozen pipes. This all goes back to standards and the standards that are provided and laid down by local authorities must be examined. It is the role of the Government through the Department to give the standards to the local authorities to implement at ground and grassroots level. Each local authority should employ a dedicated clerk of works to oversee the laying of water mains and connections to housing estates, single houses and businesses. This is because during the harsh weather conditions experienced over the Christmas and new year period, I have witnessed at first hand instances in which some pipes were laid underground shabbily. I witnessed one example in which two water mains were put in place through an electrical meter box via a mains on a street footpath. On another occasion, I saw how a water main was laid from the council mains into a housing estate on the tarmacadam but without being covered. Clearly no regulation had been applied in that case and this constituted shabby workmanship on the part of the developer, the builders or whoever. Surely someone should pay a price for this and I suggest that each local authority with statutory responsibility for water and sewage treatment should have to employ a clerk of works. Ultimately, the ratepayers and taxpayers must pick up the tab for the delivery of services to businesses, housing estates and single houses and, consequently, the Minister should take on board this proposal.
All Members are aware that some time ago, the Minister's predecessor gave the power to county managers to implement pricing controls over water and sewage treatment. From that perspective, different service levels and prices are evident nationwide. I note the Government amendment refers to its intention to begin a programme of domestic metering to be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund. While I have no great difficulty with such a proposal, the amendment also alludes to the establishment of an independent regulator for the water sector. What is the point of putting in place an independent regulator? As I stated, the county managers primarily are responsible at present. Most local authorities are comprised of committed local authority members of all parties and none. They are the watchdogs who have been doing tremendous work in overseeing, as well as in setting prices for the business community to pay. They do so while their hands are tied because the full control rests with the county managers. May I take it from the Government amendment stating its intention to establish an independent regulator for the water sector that such a person will take over part of the present role of the county manager? The current position in local authorities is that in the majority of cases of hardship or whatever that arise, local authority members bring them to the notice of the county manager. The manager frequently will take note of what is brought before him or her by the members and, if not, the matter will be raised again at the next local authority meeting. Is this really what is entailed in the proposal contained in the Government amendment?
I agree with Senator Coffey that an overall water board is required for control purposes and that the local authorities probably would be the agents used to carry out maintenance and so forth as they have the requisite expertise, as has been seen recently over the Christmas and new year period. I note the Minister intends to carry out an assessment in this regard. How long will this assessment period last and when does the Minister envisage that progress will be made in this respect?
Water undoubtedly is becoming an extremely scarce commodity and people are only too aware of the great worth and benefits of having fresh, clean drinking water delivered to their houses daily. When one is without it, one can truly miss it. In recent years, the Government's investment policy to deliver water has been implemented in the main through design, build and operate programmes. I question whether the best value has been obtained in this regard. While private money has been invested, a debate is required to ascertain what has been learned from the experiences of the design, build and operate schemes that are in place and being operated at present. I do not consider the design, build and operate model to be the best way forward as it is highly expensive and delivers highly expensive water to households. This debate should take place and the Minister might comment on the design, build and operate model of water delivery to the business community as well as to the many housing estates and single houses nationwide. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence and look forward to the Minister's response. He should take on board some of the proposals made by Senator Coffey.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:—
recognises the difficulties for families and businesses caused by the recent water supply disruptions;
acknowledges the extensive efforts by county and city councils to prepare for potential water supply disruptions caused by recent extreme weather conditions, to minimise disruptions for households and businesses and to make alternative supplies available where necessary, and to restore water supplies as quickly as possible;
recognises the importance of the work already carried out by the councils, and funded by the Exchequer, to develop water management systems and active leakage controls in identifying and repairing leaks;
notes the comprehensive review of the water services investment programme completed in 2010 which:
provides for ongoing major investment in water services in the 2010-2012 period, with €495 million spent in 2010 and €435 million provided for 2011;
accords the highest priority to investment in water conservation to address the unacceptably high levels of leakage in water supply systems;
includes contracts to the value of €320 million to commence on water conservation projects, including mains rehabilitation, in that period, which is more than double the investment in water conservation compared to the preceding seven years;
notes the proposals in the national recovery plan published in November:
to commence a programme of domestic metering to be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund and establish an independent regulator for the water sector;
notes the Government's intention shortly to commence an assessment of the need for a national water authority which will consider, inter alia, the role of such an authority, the costs and benefits of establishing it and its relationship with other actors in the sector including local authorities.
As someone who was born, bred and reared in the country, I remember well having an extension built to my family's house during the late 1950s. One of the conditions of the contract was that there would be water on-site and this was provided by my late mother and me. We were obliged to carry the water over a stile, across a road, down a hill and back up another hill with four buckets and so I greatly appreciate a water service.
Everyone will appreciate that this December witnessed some of the lowest day and night-time temperatures ever recorded in Ireland. While water pipes are prone to bursting and leaking in winter conditions, the particular severity of this winter's event led to widespread disruption to supplies from the public mains and from individual sources. Ireland has a diverse water supply system with more than 952 public supplies producing approximately 1,600 million litres of water daily through a network of 25,000 km of pipes. The extent and complexity of this network presents certain challenges, to say the least, in a period of severe weather but Ireland is not unique in this regard as many other jurisdictions are affected in a similar manner.
It is important to recognise the extensive efforts by county and city councils to prepare for potential water supply disruptions, to make alternative supplies available where necessary and to restore water supplies as quickly as possible. No words of mine can compliment local authority workers enough for the service they gave in highly adverse conditions at unsocial times. I wish to put on record my deep appreciation of their service and I am sure this view would be reflected throughout this Chamber. Local authorities put in place contingency arrangements before Christmas in the light of the anticipated thaw. Local authorities actively managed the situation throughout the period of severe weather and mobilised crews over the Christmas period to respond as quickly as possible to the problems that emerged. Given the 25,000 km of public network, however, the detection and repair of leaks is a challenging task.
While I may disagree with my colleagues on the other side of the House on a number of fronts, I agree that certain developers did an extremely shabby job in the provision of public services as part of their planning. Certainly, the water network they provided in certain circumstances leaves a great deal to be desired. The extent of burst water mains places a particular focus on the vulnerability of the Irish water distribution system, particularly on the age of the water distribution system as well as the historic under-investment in it.
We are making strides in dealing with these matters. In recent years the focus of the Government has been on improving water supply to meet population and economic needs. Under the water services investment programme €1 billion was spent on water supply infrastructure between 2000 and 2009, which is not a small sum by any standards. Some €4.6 billion in Exchequer resources has been invested between 2000 and 2009 in all forms of water services infrastructure. This has resulted in the completion of 476 major projects and an increase in water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 1.1 million.
There are 120 water services capital contracts in progress which will continue to be funded in 2011. As the Minister has outlined on more than one occasion, we are giving the highest priority to investment in water conservation to address the unacceptably high levels of leakage in our water supply systems. The water services investment programme 2010-12 was published in April 2010 and sets out an expanded investment in critical terms relating to rehabilitation, with contracts worth in excess of €300 million set to commence over the period of the programme. The money will be spent on water conservation projects including mains rehabilitation, which is double the investment in water conservation over the preceding seven years. When we talk about water use we should amend it to state "water abuse". It is ironic that many users are abusing the water supply. It is anticipated that savings of up to 10% in unaccounted-for water can be obtained by 2016 if investment is sustained. It has to be sustained if this level of improvement is to be achieved.
The Government will invest €435 million in water services in 2011. This will allow for the progression of priority contracts for expansion of supply or the improvement of security of supply. As a result of its efforts, the Government has seen a much more competitive tendering process in the past two years which has resulted in significant savings in the tender prices for water and waste water schemes, meaning we are now achieving more with less money, which is to be appreciated given the tough times we are in. This level of investment for 2011 makes clear the priority which the Government attaches to protecting and improving water services.
To fund our water infrastructure in the years ahead the Government decided to introduce domestic water charges for households in the next four years. It will be preceded by the roll-out of water meters. This measure alone will do much to conserve water. In such circumstances water would be used rather than abused because when one has a service for which one has to pay, one is very conscious that the less one uses, the less one has to pay.
The national recovery plan states our plans for the metering programme will be funded from the National Pensions Reserve Fund. The installation of water meters will strengthen the capacity of local authorities to manage their water distribution networks, lead to greater incentives for households to conserve water rather than consume as much, and provide the necessary additional funding to improve the network.. Water metering will undoubtedly lead to a radical transformation in the way people use water. It will provide value for money for consumers and also provide a customer service focus in the management and provision of water services.
We have heard comments from the Opposition. Fine Gael's proposal for the setting up of a water utility company and a new utilities commission to merge existing regulators for utilities has the hallmarks of a plan to begin to privatise water services and follow the path used in the United Kingdom. If implemented, its proposals would almost certainly prepare our water and waste water services for privatisation. To date, it has tried to slip its proposals for a water utility company and a utilities commission under the radar by providing very little detail on what its plans would be. If this plan were to go ahead, it would need to verify the status of the new single water utility company. It has not addressed the issue of job losses. I wonder what the Labour Party would think of that. I could go on and on.
I will not allow the Senator to do so.
I thank the Minister and the Cathaoirleach. I wish him a happy new year. I will not get any kudos for that.
I welcome the Minister. This is an area to which he is deeply committed. I am a little bit surprised that there will be a vote on this. It does not seem to me that the two positions are irreconcilable. The first section of the Fine Gael motion, which I support and which I strongly compliment my colleagues on having tabled and argued so capably, simply recognises the difficulties we are in, lists certain factual matters which have been accepted on both sides of the House, such as the extraordinary figure that 43% of drinking water disappears in unidentified leaks, which is astonishing, and refers to the situation in recent weeks. It then goes on to propose a single publicly owned water utilities company, which I strongly support. I have the greatest respect and affection for my good friend, Senator Glynn, but there is nothing there that suggests anything remotely like a privatisation. It is a nationally owned public utility and so it should be. Water is one of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. As such, it needs to be managed nationally because it is a national resource. We have shown ourselves to be incapable of doing so, in terms of the Government and the local authorities, although they have done a fair amount of work in recent years. As citizens we are irresponsible in the way we treat our water resources, a point to which I will return.
The Government amendment proposes to delete all the words after "Seanad Éireann" as usual and states what it is spending money on. It is incontrovertible; they are facts. Most interestingly, the Government refers to the proposals in the national recovery plan which was published in November to commence a programme of national domestic metering to be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund and establish an independent regulator for the water sector. I hope it does that. It also states it "notes the Government's intention shortly to commence an assessment of the need for a national water authority which will consider, inter alia, the role of such an authority, the costs and benefits of establishing it and its relationship with ... local authorities”. In other words, it proposes something very close to a utility company.
I know that to some extent the Minister is on planet Bertie — I heard the quote recently on the radio — but a timescale is involved. We know he will be gone in three months at the absolute maximum. It is not the time to consider this, that or the other or for establishing a think tank. It is time to come to some degree of harmonious agreement and that is why I suggest we try to avoid a vote and, if necessary, to have some negotiations between the two sides. If there are any objectionable elements, they should be taken out. Let us push forward with a positive situation regarding water.
There is a political element to this issue. The infrastructure is bad. Some of it is not just Victorian; it is Georgian. The pipes are not just iron. Some of them are wooden in some sections of Dublin or were until recently. One of the problems is that the public does not appreciate that it is getting water. I have made myself unpopular in saying this. I have always supported water charges but they must be proper and fair and related to the amount of water used.
The abolition of domestic water charges in Ireland goes back to 1996. It happened because there was a possibility of a Government seat being targeted by an anti-water charges candidate and it collapsed and gave in. That is the political element of the issue. Of course, unfairness was involved because water was not metered and there was no relationship between how much one used and how much one paid. One should pay for what one uses. I feel the same about bin charges and so on. The bill for water charges was infrequent and came in one big lump, very often at a time when families had to pay school fees and all the rest. The method of billing is important. It should certainly be looked at. I understood the Minister was examining the question of water metering. He said quite recently that he was considering the installation of water meters in 1.1 million homes. That is important. As I understand it, he is looking for funding from the National Treasury Management Agency or another similar body. It has also been suggested that there is a possibility that representatives of some big company — possibly Siemens — will come in on it. Is that right?
It was in the newspaper but it did not approach me.
It has not coughed up. We will be left on our own as usual. I still think this most important element of the matter should be looked at. Of the €4.6 billion that has been invested in water services since 2000, €2.8 billion has been spent on sewage treatment plants and €1.8 billion has been spent on water supply.
I am surprised that neither the motion nor the amendment before the House refers to the impact of water services difficulties on health. Our concerns should not be limited to the 43% of water that disappears. It is extraordinary that the microbial pollution of water in Galway arose in a sophisticated country that until recently was regarded as being wealthy and having money to spend all over the place. People across the entire city were trying to live on bottled water for a while. One can imagine the impact on the tourism business when that kind of thing happens fairly regularly on an Ireland-wide basis.
I have mentioned that water is one of the four elements. It is clear from recent events in Australia that it is a fairly unpredictable element. Although this country's water situation is relatively predictable, we have experienced certain problems as a result of the massive housing expansion. As my colleague, Senator Burke said, some of the leaks have resulted from bad building practices. It is unacceptable that water pipes have been placed an inch or two under the ground, which makes them vulnerable to ice and frost.
We should not think we have an over-abundance of water. The Liffey and Vartry rivers, which supply more than 95% of Dublin's water, are at their limits at the moment. They will be unable to meet future needs unless a considerable investment is made. Britain took 25 years to make such an investment. The consumption of water in this jurisdiction is considerably greater than that in Britain. Irish people are among the highest consumers of water in the EU.
The supply of water is very important for various industries, including agriculture. I was interested to hear the president of the IFA on the radio this morning. He talked about the significance of access to decent water and the impact on the agricultural economy of water shortages. One of the good signs for this country is that exports of agricultural products are booming, thankfully. We need to manage that as well as possible.
There is much to be done. The House is more or less united on this issue. I am not trying to avoid a vote. I do not care if I have to vote, as I will be here working in my office. Is it necessary for the House to divide on this matter? Can we not find some measure of agreement and push forward from there? If one looks up the road to Northern Ireland, it will be clear that this problem is not unique to this jurisdiction. We had a severe problem when demand reached a huge peak of 610 million litres on St. Stephen's day. Apart from anything else, people left their taps running. We always used to do that to stop taps from freezing. There was a vast insurrection among the public in Northern Ireland. It led to the resignation of the head of Northern Ireland Water. We are all on the Minister's side. We would like realistic further progress to be made in the direction we all feel is necessary.
I thank Senators for giving me an opportunity to speak to this motion and the amendment that has been moved. I share the concerns expressed about the severe difficulties experienced in some cases following the recent disruption to water supplies. The difficulties encountered by families, businesses and the farming community during the festive season followed the harsh weather conditions in the lead-up to Christmas. It is only when supply is disrupted that the importance of water services are fully appreciated.
I will speak in detail on the background to this problem, the steps taken to deal with it in the short term and the longer term plans for rehabilitating defective water mains and modernising the water sector. Before I do so, I emphasise my gratitude for the efforts of local authority staff and contractors in responding to the situation as quickly as possible in exceptionally challenging circumstances.
The last five weeks of 2010 saw unprecedented severe weather across the country. Spells of exceptionally cold weather led to some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded in Ireland, with heavy snowfalls in some places. Temperatures remained below zero for nine consecutive days in some inland areas. Many records for low temperatures were broken on the nights of 24 and 25 December. There was a dramatic change over the Christmas period. There was a rapid change to milder weather during St. Stephen's day and Monday, 27 December. On average, an overall change of approximately 20° was experienced over a period of between 24 and 36 hours. This led to a rapid thaw in most areas. Most of the snow in the southern half of the country had melted by Tuesday, 28 December. The thaw had taken effective hold over the rest of the country by Wednesday, 29 December.
This rapid thaw caused movement in the ground which led to pipes bursting. These bursts occurred not only in public mains but at the point of consumer connections to mains and on consumer service pipes. In addition to finding and fixing leaks on the public networks, many authorities had to assist in fixing consumer side leakage or disconnecting properties to protect the overall network and restore supply to the wider community. Nationally, more than 2,500 unattended properties had to be disconnected due to leakage on the consumer side. In the period after 26 December, almost 3,400 local authority staff and their contractors were involved in finding and fixing these leaks. Some 250,000 hours of work were involved over that period. Many of the workers in question had been involved in responding to the severe weather in the run-up to Christmas. In some cases, those who had salted and gritted roads during some of the most severe weather on record, drove tankers to ensure people had adequate access to drinking water. Staff in the water services areas of local authorities were willingly assisted by roads, housing and other support staff. Such a combined effort is the hallmark of public service. I commend them for their commitment. On behalf of the Government, I wholeheartedly thank them for their efforts. As a result of their work, progressive improvements were made on a daily basis so restrictions could be reduced and eliminated in many places. This work is continuing. Some restrictions continue to apply to ensure reservoirs are replenished to normal levels.
It is important to highlight that this response was part of the wider response to the severe weather, involving many statutory, voluntary and private bodies. The close co-operation of these groups at local level, along with their participation in the national severe weather co-ordination group, has ensured a focused response to the extreme conditions. This did not happen without appropriate planning. Lessons were learnt from weather events in 2009 and earlier in 2010. In the case of water services, local authorities put in place contingency arrangements before Christmas in light of the anticipated thaw. Demand management measures were introduced to seek to reduce demand and replenish reservoirs during the period of freezing weather, mainly through pressure reductions and night-time restrictions. Local authorities ensured that staff would be available throughout the Christmas and new year period so that once the thaw took hold and leaks began to appear, they could mobilise response crews immediately. The overall response at national level to the severe weather and the water supply disruptions is being reviewed by my Department and the other Departments and agencies involved. We will learn from the experience and further develop our response mechanisms.
I accept the need for substantial investment in water services. The Fine Gael motion completely ignores the extent of the investment made and the progress achieved in the sector over the past decade to address a legacy of historical under-investment. It also ignores the strategies in place to radically transform the sector in the coming years. Ireland has a diverse water supply system, with more than 950 public supplies producing some 1,600 million litres of water daily through a network of 25,000 km of pipes. The extent of burst water mains places a particular focus on the vulnerability of the Irish water distribution system given, in particular, its age, the high levels of leakage in the system and the lack of investment historically in mains rehabilitation. Water is a precious resource, with costs associated with treatment and distribution.
While one might accept that larger networks have greater inherent risks in terms of leakage, the levels of unaccounted for water in the Irish network are completely unacceptable. Improvements have been made in the Dublin area, with unaccounted for water reducing from some 42% to almost 30%. Many other areas of the country have rates of more than 50%. From an economic and environmental perspective, there must be a strong focus on addressing leakage in our water systems given the increased demands for water, greater pressures on raw water and more stringent drinking water standards. This is being addressed.
The focus of investment in recent years has been on improving water supply to keep pace with population and economic needs and investing to ensure compliance with the European directives on drinking water standards and urban wastewater discharges. As a result of a €1 billion investment by the Exchequer under the water services investment programme between 2000 and 2009, water storage capacity increases alone were equivalent to the needs of a population of 1.6 million. A greater proportion of investment under the water services investment programme 2010-2012 will be dedicated to improving water supply infrastructure, with water conservation being accorded top priority.
The publication of the water services investment programme 2010-2012 followed on from a root and branch review of water services capital investment. This included a review of all projects included in the previous programme which had not substantially advanced to ensure the contracts and schemes to proceed were fully aligned with key programme economic and environmental priorities. The 2010-2012 programme sets out an expanded investment in critical mains rehabilitation with contracts with a value of some €320 million set to commence over the period of the programme. This is more than double the investment of €130 million in water conservation measures in the period 2003-09. Senator Glynn went into this in some detail in his contribution.
Most of the expenditure to date on water conservation outside Dublin has been largely in technology-based water management systems. These systems proved invaluable during the recent difficulties in managing production and providing data to assist in leak detection. These systems are a necessary precursor to investment in mains rehabilitation. While the Dublin authorities' programme of rehabilitation is the most advanced, other authorities were finalising their programmes of works during 2010 to allow for contract commencements this year. The investment of €435 million in water services in 2011 under this programme will, in addition to prioritising water conservation, allow for the progression of priority contracts for expansion of supply or the improvement of security of supply in a number of hubs and gateways.
It is anticipated that sustained investment in line with that envisaged in the water services investment programme could reduce the rate of unaccounted for water by 10% nationwide by 2016. In addition, I have placed a particular emphasis on training of water services personnel, making available a dedicated funding stream in 2010. Through this fund, some 500 days of training on leakage detection were provided in 2010. Investment and training can only do so much. How we use water also needs to be addressed and water charges, based on usage, has a major part to play in this regard. My Department is finalising proposals to give effect to the Government decision to introduce water charges in a way that is fair, significantly reduces waste and is easily applied.
The national recovery plan proposes that the introduction of water charges for domestic customers be preceded by the commencement of a national metering programme, which will be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund, to install meters in households connected to the public water supply. The metering programme is likely to take a number of years to complete but the objective is that it will be substantially advanced in the next three years. My Department is analysing the various options to ensure the delivery of the metering programme in the most cost effective manner. The installation of water meters in households connected to public supplies will encourage householders to conserve water and will result in savings in the significant operational costs incurred by local authorities in providing water and waste water services. It will also complement the significant increases in investment on water conservation measures in the water services investment programme.
The Government recognises that a crucial element of implementing this initiative will be the appointment of a water regulator. It is intended that the water regulator would be responsible for the economic regulation of water services to the non-domestic and domestic sectors. Independent regulation will ensure greater transparency and fairness in water pricing for both sectors and that charges can be clearly linked to the delivery of a reliable and good quality service. In addition to overseeing the rate of water charges, the water regulator will also be responsible for establishing standards for service delivery and performance. Consideration is being given to assigning the responsibility for regulation of the water sector to an existing regulatory body, although no final decision has yet been taken on this matter.
Notwithstanding the efforts of the local authorities in dealing quickly with the disruptions to water supply and the difficulties experienced by the national water authority in Northern Ireland, the Fine Gael motion still envisages the consolidation of water maintenance functions under a single national authority. This completely ignores that our capacity to respond quickly and deal with the water supply disruptions over recent weeks has been due in large part to local authorities being able to mobilise resources locally to deal with local problems. This contrasts with the response in Northern Ireland. A move to centralising water functions must be backed up by detailed evidence and research. Admittedly, several policy reports and publications have recommended structural reforms for the delivery of water services. The reports of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes and of the high level group on green enterprise recommended the establishment of a national water authority while a regional or river basin approach to water services was recommended by the local government efficiency review group and in the OECD's environmental performance review of Ireland. The Government has not ruled out assessing the need for and role of a national water authority but it will consider this issue on an informed basis.
My Department will shortly be initiating an independent assessment of the transfer of responsibility for water services provision from the 34 county and city councils to a national water authority. This assessment will be completed by the end of this year. It is intended that the assessment would review the existing structures for the delivery of water services and will determine the most effective structures for delivering high quality competitively priced water services to customers and for infrastructure provision. The review of the current delivery structures will include an examination of the performance of local authorities in recent years in the provision of water services and will determine whether existing structures are the most efficient and effective for the delivery and operation of water services. This goes a long way towards addressing the points raised by Senator Coffey in his contribution.
The assessment will also have regard to other structural reforms that are ongoing, including the establishment of the regulator for water, the introduction of metered water charges, the implementation of the recommendations of the local government efficiency review group and of the value for money study of the water services investment programme as well as the structures for the implementation of the river basin management plans.
The Government is committed to continued high levels of investment in water services. This investment is informed by a clear strategy which prioritises water conservation, improvement in water quality and provision of capacity to facilitate enterprise needs and underpin economic recovery. Over time, this will further improve the general condition of Irish water services infrastructure. While any infrastructure will be vulnerable to unprecedented weather events, the investment should improve the resilience of the infrastructure. Combined with the Government proposals to commence a programme of domestic metering to be funded by the National Pensions Reserve Fund and to establish an independent regulator for the water sector, this will build on the investment made in the sector to transform our water services sector radically over the coming decade.
I again acknowledge the difficulties that the unprecedented weather has caused for communities, and commend all those public organisations, voluntary groups and communities who worked together throughout the five week period to ensure the social and business life could continue as much as possible. We will continue to learn from these experiences to ensure that all actors are appropriately engaged to ensure optimum response and continuance of public service in such challenging circumstances.
I welcome the Minister. Not for the first time the House is experiencing déjà vu because, as the motion points out, we had the same debate this time last year following the extraordinary conditions that affected the country over the Christmas period. I am sure this sense of déjà vu was felt more acutely and painfully by the hundreds of thousands of householders, elderly people, care workers, nurses and business owners who faced another serious or sustained water shortage or a complete lack of mains water. My constituency suffered serious water shortages and many areas were affected throughout County Tipperary. In common with the rest of the country, demand peaked during St. Stephen’s Day when the rapid thaw put water reserves and the water infrastructure under extraordinary pressure. The county engineer outlined startling figures in this regard. South Tipperary is no stranger to water issues as normally we have too much of it when the river is not contained within its banks.
However, as with last year's debate, I refer to the local agency response and genuinely acknowledge that many council employees worked incredibly long hours throughout the Christmas holiday as part of the countywide effort to alleviate problems in the worst affected areas. A total of 83 personnel were engaged by South Tipperary County Council, STCC, to manage water supplies at the peak of the drinking water emergency response in the following areas: leak detection, three; leak repairs, 24; contractors, 24; support staff, 25; and supervisory staff, seven. A total of 31 public mains leaks were detected and repaired along with 645 public connections and ten mains plus consumer connections giving a total of 686 works. Like every other local authority, STCC had a busy time responding to this emergency. The council also used tankers in a number of areas and it kept its website and local radio and press updated during the period. An emergency number was available to the public and sufficient staff worked to deal with the supply problem, which was the authority's responsibility. The majority of calls related to frozen pipes.
Last year, there was widespread criticism of the national response to the weather crisis. I accept we have been exceptionally unlucky to endure such weather conditions again so soon after the previous crisis. However, it must be acknowledged that adjectives such as "unprecedented" and "extraordinary" diminish in both power and meaning when an inadequate crisis response is repeated less than 12 months later. Once again the crisis was defined by appalling and inconsistent reports and communications.
Last year, the Labour Party proposed a simple and cost neutral initiative involving a website that the Government owns and runs to communicate more effectively during times of crisis. The home page of www.emergencyplanning.ie, the dedicated home for Ireland’s emergency response planning states:
In Ireland different Government departments and agencies are responsible for specific emergency planning functions. In the event of a major emergency, the most appropriate department or agency is designated as the lead agency to co-ordinate the response to it.
I have no issue with the principle of a multi-agency response to crisis planning and preparedness. We supported the recent call to involve all stakeholders, including the community and voluntary sector, in alleviating the worst effects of the weather crisis. The problem with the statement is the cack-handed and ineffective approach to co-ordinated and cohesive communication. The site might as well be called www.passthebuck.ie for all the use it is to worried people in search of information. The site instructs visitors to visit the websites of their local authorities, despite wildly inconsistent standards in, and commitments to, the provision of information during crises.
I make the following inexpensive and practical suggestion for an improvement in this area: to ask a web designer to produce an interactive map of the 26 counties. During crises, everyone, regardless of where he or she lives, should be directed to www.emergencyplanning.ie. The website would need to be sufficiently robust to manage a sudden heightened influx of traffic. Visitors could then click on the appropriate electoral area on the map, which would call up the emergency update page with information and advice relevant to a user’s locality. These updates could be carried out and logged by a trained member of each local authority communications team. One or two members of the sizeable Government communications team could be briefly seconded to the service to support and streamline the information from the top down.
Such an approach should be supported by a vibrant and interactive social media response on Twitter and Facebook. That is how a corporate entity would respond to a crisis because a private sector company would be acutely aware of the enormous financial and reputational cost of a perceived communications failure. I appeal to the Minister to consider this simple, cost free proposal to streamline and centralise communications. Information is critical during crises and people generally understand such crises are by their nature difficult to manage and unpredictable but it is essential that the State engages, communicates and advises effectively.
Similarly, it may be worth investing in a targeted public information campaign next December on what to do during a water crisis. The problems were greatly exaggerated by the ill-considered actions of some people. Leaving taps running to ensure pipes do not freeze is a disaster for the mains system and places considerable additional pressure on a struggling infrastructure. It is also clear that many people are not sufficiently informed about the importance of insulation, how to prevent pipes freezing, how to defrost pipes, liability as a result of commercial leaks and so on.
Major infrastructural investment is required in our antiquated water mains system. Naturally, such investment was ignored when the Government had the money and the situation has reached a critical phase at precisely the time we can least afford to invest. Nonetheless, investment should be a priority for the next Government, of which I hope to be a part, and it should constitute an essential part of the diminished capital projects list. Our century old cast iron system loses up to 40% of the treated supply of drinking water annually and it is ill-equipped to deal with the temperature fluctuations we experienced last month. Engineers Ireland estimates that 5% of the system needs to be replaced annually just to retain the existing network. Our low population density presents considerable problems. Ireland has the most extensive water mains system per head of population in Europe. I commend my colleagues, Senators Fitzgerald, Coffey and O'Reilly, on tabling the motion.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. This debate on this most precious of resources, its management, responsibility for its delivery and environmentally friendly production processes is also welcome. Water flushes and sluices life on a daily basis but this needs to be done in a way that is both efficient and responsible in terms of how water is treated and where it ends up. There is hardly a more important local authority or governmental function than the provision of water, the life source for all of us.
I agree with Senator Norris that there is a great deal of common ground in both the motion and the amendment. The motion calls on the Government to establish a single publicly owned water utility and so on and if Fine Gael Members had pre-empted that by saying the Government should investigate the advantages and disadvantages of doing so compared to the current local authority-led system, we would be on the same pitch. There is not a great deal separating the two outlooks. The Government amendment states we need to investigate the pros and cons of such a move and the strengths and weaknesses of the current system before we arrive at a decision that may result in the establishment of a water utility company. There is a sense in which we can speak to each other in a not particularly adversarial way on this matter.
We should be cautioned by the lessons of the experience in Northern Ireland, where the scale of the problem relative to the number of users was far greater and where the ability of the Northern Ireland Water board, as the unitary authority, to respond to the problem was shambolic, to use the word of senior politicians in Northern Ireland. It highlights the need for an assessment before the establishment of a unitary water utility company. The required skill sets were not on the board. The appointments to the board by the Minister for Regional Development were inadequate, while the chairman was missing in action. The culture appears to be an attitude that it will be all right on the night. We must be mindful of the lessons to be learned from that experience.
On the other hand, although the responses of local authorities were sometimes patchy, local authorities in general felt responsible for the people they knew and were led in their actions by local information from councillors to officials. The officials, in turn, were able to keep local representatives well informed every hour of where freezing was occurring, where tankers would be available, when water supply pressure would be reduced or when water supplies would be turned off and on. Despite what Senator Prendergast said, much of this information was communicated by way of Twitter feeds and local authority websites being kept up to date throughout the Christmas period.
I join the Minister in thanking all the staff of local authorities, and the contractors who were brought in by the local authorities when they found themselves over-stretched, for their herculean efforts over the Christmas. Many of them left their families at a time of the year when the rest of us were able to spend time with ours. It was a remarkable achievement and a testament to the commitment of local authorities to ensuring that their local populations were returned to normality or as near to it as possible. In fact, one day my local county council provided more than 100,000 litres of water to Newry and Mourne District Council, which was probably a cross-Border first. It highlights the contrast in response times and the sense of responsibility taken on either side of the Border.
Those observations are worth making before we rush to embrace the idea of a single utility company. I welcome the concept of an assessment being made, however, and I look forward to its outcome. What I have said is not to preclude the eventual establishment of such a utility, but we must make haste slowly in that regard.
The water services investment programme continues apace, despite the huge pressures on the public finances. It is an indication of the Minister's commitment to providing a reliable, safe and clean water system. Under the 2011 programme a total of €435 million will be invested, with particular emphasis on security of supply for hubs and gateways. This is an example of where planning and service provision are properly aligned, with resources not being dispersed across what is a very extensive rather than intensive network. As the previous speaker said, Ireland has, per head of population, the biggest network in the European Union. I commend that level of investment. It is starting to make up for a long period of under-investment in the production, transport and eventual disposal of potable water.
Engineers Ireland estimates that a 5% replacement rate is necessary throughout the country. However, it is unfair to convey the notion that the network is still primarily a cast pipe system. In many towns the vast bulk of the system is of modern standard, and that investment must continue. Management upstream is obviously most important. Before one starts to put water into new pipes one must control the quantities, flows, pressures and so forth.
While we have many ideas in common, ultimately the Fine Gael motion puts the cart before the horse in terms of establishing the water utility before a proper assessment is carried out as to whether it is the right response to the current situation or whether it would undermine a system that was shown to work quite well over the Christmas period.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. During the freeze, two problems or difficulties arose. First, pipes were generally not deep enough in the ground to withstand the unprecedented drop in temperatures. That should not be the case as we should be ready for eventuality. The fact that pipes are close to the ground surface was a difficulty in many new housing estates. That was the first difficulty.
The second difficulty was that we have a great deal of old infrastructure. Much of the 25,000 kilometres of pipeline is out of date. Obviously, a considerable number of sections are not, but there is a great deal of old piping, certainly where many of the water schemes are old and in the case of old houses. There was a combination of old piping and piping being located near the ground. They were the two major difficulties that arose.
It is worth mentioning that while we have this old infrastructure or infrastructural deficit, at the same time there are many engineers and construction workers in this country. Construction is the sector that has been worst hit by unemployment. There is also a high level of unemployment among engineers in the construction sector and among young graduate engineers. It does not make economic planning or social engineering sense to have unemployed construction workers and engineers and, at the same time, an old and beaten water supply infrastructure. The two do not add up and must be knit together.
The result of the difficulties that arose was extraordinary hardship for farmers and householders. Great tribute should go to the voluntary organisations, neighbours who helped others and to the meitheal approach, or people coming together, that was manifest throughout the storm. That community spirit, especially towards older people, merits salute. Farmers experienced great personal hardship feeding their cattle and accessing water. One farmer who was bringing water to an outlying farm told me that by the time he reached that outlying farm, given the nature of the roads, the water had frozen. It was really perverse. It was a very difficult time. Their effort and human suffering must be acknowledged.
I wish to point out, without being parochial but with great sincerity and notwithstanding any proposals for a national authority which I will discuss later, that I am very proud of the response of Cavan County Council. It was huge, quick and wonderful. The outdoor, professional and technical staff of the council worked overtime, around the clock and went beyond the call of duty. That includes the clerical staff who manned the telephones and responded to the people. They were very responsive to local and national representatives who were regularly on the telephone to them. I acknowledge the role of Cavan County Council. It is important we salute good results when they are achieved, and the response to the storm was certainly good.
How do we finance the necessary infrastructure repair and renewal? We live in times where this question cannot be avoided. It used to be fashionable for people at all levels of politics to call for reform and infrastructural improvement, but not necessarily mention the financial issue. There is no avoiding that issue in contemporary Ireland. With that in mind, Fine Gael has bitten the bullet and, courageously for an Opposition party, we have said that once a certain allowance should be made for absolute domestic supply where a core amount is needed, there would have to be a charge for water after that. It is courageous for a party in opposition to say that, but it is what the national interest requires at the moment. We propose to finance the infrastructural deficit through the collection of a water charge. The metering process has to go ahead to achieve this. It is difficult to say this in opposition, but it must be said.
How do we set about replacing the infrastructure, repairing the pipes and accommodating the infrastructure to deal with storms? We have proposed a national water authority. This will not replace the local authorities but will co-ordinate the effort nationally and will streamline the activities of local authorities to allow for a certain homogeneity in approach. There should not be disparate approaches. One of the criticisms has been that there are different responses throughout the country. At budget time, different councils identify different priorities. They scramble for funding and there is no co-ordination. We would hope to achieve that. Over an interim period, the councils would maintain absolute control, but at a later stage, the national co-ordination would go to the water authority which would create a national strategy using the money raised by water charges. It merits mentioning when we think about the money factor. Up to €1 billion per year is being spent on fixing piping. We must also think about the cost of insurance and ancillary costs, so it would make good sense to deal with the question and we would have national body look after it.
Senator Glynn asked whether this body would allow for privatisation. It is clearly stated in our NewERA strategy that we would not sell the electricity or water networks. We would maintain the piping infrastructure at all times and we would maintain the grid in the case of electricity. Only crazy people would do otherwise, and we are not proposing that. That is a red herring and I am sure Senator Glynn would be happy to be corrected on that.
We obviously need to marry the replacement of infrastructure with a national insulation strategy in homes to preserve piping and so on. We need to have pipes buried at a deeper level to accommodate winters that may arise. We must be ready for every eventuality. This will take co-ordination and planning at a national level. We will have a strategy in government that will have a monitoring process to avoid waste. Consequently, we will not allow the new water authority to become some sort of a wasteful organisation. It will have to produce results on a day to day basis.
I will conclude by saluting those who worked hard through a very painful period. This should be the last winter they have to do that, and we should learn from it.
We all welcome the opportunity to express our sincere thanks to the local authority workers for the effort they put in during the recent crisis. My own local authority responded as best it could to every situation and very few people were left without water for a long time. That shows the commitment of the local authority staff involved.
The Opposition has tabled a motion calling for the establishment of a quango, even though it is totally opposed to quangos and to new authorities. This is ridiculous. We have heard every Member on the Opposition benches praise their local authority during this debate. Whether it is justifiable, they have had to do it for political reasons. Setting up another quango will not be responsive to the needs of local people. The local maintenance man from the council will have the local knowledge and he will be directed by supervisors who will also have local knowledge. This makes it much easier for them to respond to a situation than someone operating from a central base. A prime example of what operating from a central base can do was the actions of the NRA in making salt available to local authorities this year. Until this year, local authorities were responsible for their own gritting and salt. They catered much better last year under their own control than this year under the control of the NRA. It is not much good when a public relations man from the NRA comes on the evening news and informs the public that they will have salt on Sunday or Monday when people were not able to go about their business because the NRA had not provided adequate salt to deal with the situation.
We all know that certain failures in planning have come to light as a result of the recent freeze. Some of the recently installed water pipes froze because they were not deep enough. Whoever installed them should be asked to account to the Minister for setting a depth level that was not sufficient to deal with the adverse weather conditions. That was not the first time. Some of us are old enough to remember when we had frost for five or six weeks in the early 1960s. The only difference then was that we did not have the water infrastructure we have now. Otherwise the lessons would have been learned that pipes should be put in at a minimum depth.
When we talk about water conservation, we should look at the 35% of treated water that ends up unused in streams and elsewhere. There is a responsibility on local authorities to continue to monitor the amount of water being used in different pipelines. It is not as if they do not have the equipment available to them. We all know that every pipe is metered every so often and that many connections have been metered in recent schemes. This situation needs to be tackled. Many people are forced to use treated water for purposes other than household use. Farmers are sometimes forced to use it because they have no source of supply other than treated water. Are we going to penalise those individuals down the road with a new water authority that will look to charge for every cubic metre that flows into a person's yard? That will have to be examined. If local authorities do not have the discretion to deal with that situation, then regulations and rules will be imposed on people who cannot afford them. We will then have bigger problems.
If we are going to have this situation where people have to use treated water for non-domestic purposes, let us see if an alternative can be put in place to help them, such as by means of providing funding for properly bored wells, water for animals or rain harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is likely to make a return. We all remember the days when every house had some way of harvesting some of the water that came off the roof, whether it was a barrel or something else. In many cases it was recycled and used for purposes other than household use. This made a contribution.
The motion is nothing more than an opportunist action taken by the Opposition which believes it can blame someone for what has taken place. The fact is we suffered because of the weather conditions and because there was bad planning when it came to water connections and the depth at which mains were installed. It exposed the poor maintenance of water mains of some local authorities. It also exposed the fact that some people have absolutely no concept of the cost of producing water. We know there are people who are delinquent with regard to how they use water and who leave taps running and so forth. The amount of water a half-inch tap can deliver in 24 hours is phenomenal. We are all aware that people left taps running. Perhaps they believed they were justified in the end when they had water and their neighbour did not, until the supply became depleted and then everything froze.
We should not consider establishing a new national authority but we should establish an authority that will have the responsibility from local authority level to deal with this situation. We could put all the money we wish into it and create another quango but we would end up with the same problems we had when we took away other services from the local authorities and areas. Let us recall what took place with the HSE when we did away with the health boards and when local accountability disappeared. I have no wish to see the same situation arise when this report is introduced. That said, it is important we examine how we can minimise the loss of water and the sometimes considerable inconvenience suffered by some.
I have heard it suggested that we might examine the Northern Ireland model. That proved to us once and for all that one agency covering the whole area does not work. They were not able to get it back, they had all sorts of problems and they were dependent on water supplies from other areas. We must consider two things. We must get our infrastructure up to standard and diminish the loss of treated water. A target should be set for 10% inside the next five years rather than setting targets for other emissions which cause less problems to the public. On top of this, the issue need not be handled by a national authority. It should be left at local level and administered by the Department.
We must be very clear about what we are addressing. We face two distinct issues: the micro-management of our water services and the macro-management of our water service infrastructure nationally. These are two different things. Senator Ellis is correct to point out that in respect of salt supplies and the gritting of roads during the most recent cold spell, the National Roads Authority failed abysmally in the micro-management of that system. It should have been left in the hands of local authorities. I hope the power and authority to micro-manage the road network during a freeze will return to the local authorities. However, I do not agree with Senator Ellis when he states the NRA has not been successful in the macro-management of the national road network. One need only travel throughout the country on what is fast becoming a world-class state-of-the-art motorway network.
Rather than usurping the authority of local government and detracting from the experience and wisdom of local authority engineers, the NRA has taken that wisdom and experience and incorporated it into its planning during the past 15 years. Many of us will know of former roads engineers who had been employed by local authorities and who were taken into the NRA structure on secondment for the period of the construction of a motorway in a given local authority. The NRA has co-ordinated efforts throughout the country to create this magnificent motorway network. It has used the wisdom and experience of our engineers rather than having usurped the local authorities. We must be careful to make the distinction between the micro-management and macro-management of our road network system. In general, the NRA has been a remarkably successful entity and authority.
The water problems of the recent freeze up did not occur only during recent months. We have been aware of the issues within the system for many years. Some years ago, Forfás produced a report and found that 43% of the water we produce is simply unaccounted for. This figure of 43% is an average throughout all local authorities and the situation in several local authorities is a good deal worse than 43%. We must conclude that the fragmented approach of water provision in this country throughout 34 local authorities is simply not working and will not work in future. If an electricity supply was generated within each county, what a fragmented, haphazard approach it would represent for electricity generation. There is no reason to expect that if we co-ordinate and set up a single water authority to cover the macro-management and planning for a sustainable and properly functioning national water network, it would not work as well as the NRA with regard to the roads.
We held this debate last February. At the time the Minister, Deputy Gormley, rubbished Fine Gael's plan for a single, national water authority, as did Senator Glynn. This evening, Senator Ellis has continued to criticise Fine Gael for seeking to set up what he describes as another quango. At that time, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, had left the Chamber but I pointed out to Senator Glynn that it is the Government's own policy to set up a national water authority.
That policy came about through the provision of an excellent document produced in November 2009 by Deputy Mary Coughlan, the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. They called on a high-level investigative group to examine how the Government might harness the potential of the green enterprise sector and stated it was central to the development of the smart economy and designated it as one of Ireland's target sectors for investment and job creation. Fine Gael and I fully support this aspiration. That report's introduction, signed by the Ministers, Deputies Coughlan and Ryan, stated that the Government would ensure the report would be acted upon swiftly and decisively in order that Ireland could extend its international reputation as an exciting and dynamic location for innovation and job creation. I advise Senator Ellis to read the document which states: "the setting up of a single national water authority with overall responsibility for system planning, delivery and maintenance will support the development of deeper public and private sector capabilities in the water sector and the development of projects of greater scale".
On a point of order, that is a recommendation only.
That is not a point of order.
Senator Ellis is wrong and he should acknowledge that he is wrong.
This is the Government's own policy. It has spent the past hour criticising us for the same policy. I do not intend to dwell on it further but it is important that those speaking on a matter as important as providing the country with a sustainable and properly functioning water service should be aware of their own policy on the matter.
A rather farcical situation arose in County Galway last year when hundreds of acres of land was under water but no water was coming through our taps at the same time. The situation was not the same this time because the freeze up created most of our problems. Every cubic metre of water that goes into most households in the country is treated, but treating water is an expensive pursuit. Only 15% of the water that comes into our households is used for drinking and cooking. The other 85% is used for grey water purposes such as washing, cleaning, laundry and watering gardens. It is unsustainable to allow costly drinking water to be flushed down the toilet. We need to examine the provision of grant aid for increasing the usage of rainwater harvesting systems. With one of the wettest climates in the world, Ireland should be better at gathering in schools, public buildings and other dwellings this resource that falls from the sky. Rainwater harvesting would also provide alternative supply options when severe weather freezes occur, for example.
Sustainable Energy Ireland has done excellent work in sustainable development by providing grant aid for solar panels, wood chip boilers and heat pumps. It also returns millions of unspent euro to the Exchequer every year owing to lack of take-up for its programmes. We must consider Sustainable Energy Ireland grant aiding rainwater harvesting systems. Germany, probably the European country foremost on the cutting edge of innovation, has identified rainwater harvesting as having massive potential in job creation. In Germany now, every new house must provide a rainwater harvesting system with government-backed grant aid available to meet costs. If we are to convince people that government is able to respond effectively to crises such as this, we need to plan our responses in a meaningful and effective way.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus an reachtaíocht seo. Our local authorities provided sterling service and did tremendous work during the course of the severe weather and water supply crises before and after Christmas. At a time when many commentators have been critical of public sector workers, the work done by local authority, ESB, HSE and other public sector workers and the Defence Forces must be acknowledged by all.
The motion calls for action. Sadly, in the 12 months since the last weather crisis, little or no action has been taken to put in place a strategy to alleviate and eliminate the hardships and restrictions people must endure owing to severe weather conditions. Salt for treating the road networks arrived late, even after Met Éireann forecast the snowstorm well in advance. Water supplies suffered leaks when pipes froze. During the Christmas, I visited households in private and council estates in my area in Bishopstown, Cork, in which the pipes were frozen. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, explain why some pipes freeze and others do not? Engineering should allow for pipes not to freeze or burst. How is that 43% of the treated water supply is lost through unidentified leaks in the system?
It is time for a radical approach to deal with these problems. I agree with Senator Ellis we should not establish a quango for the sake of it. We know well that quangos under Fianna Fáil have done nothing but cost the taxpayer money and have been used to reward its friends with appointments. It is time, however, we had a single publicly owned water utility company to take charge of water supply and have responsibility for investment in and management of the water supply network at national, local and regional levels.
The ESB did Trojan work over the Christmas ensuring no major disruptions in electricity supply occurred and rectifying quickly any that did. At a time when we heard criticism about the gargantuan salary paid to the ESB's chief executive officer, it is important to pay tribute to the staff and management of the ESB for the way they ensured supplies for their customers continued virtually uninterrupted.
The opposite is the case when it comes to the water system. Its management is fragmented, inefficient and outdated. There are 34 different water management authorities all working independently of one another with no joined-up thinking. The limits and problems of such management were evident in Cork's November 2009 flooding. Some parts of the city lost water supply because there was no interconnector to join city and county supply pipes. It is not about joining supplies over some great distance, like joining Las Vegas with San Francisco, because both supplies were only two miles apart.
Cork is very different territory though.
It may be but it is not foreign territory. Joining up the Cork county and city supplies is not rocket science.
I understand the frustration experienced by businesses and residents with water supply restrictions, especially in Dublin. In modern Ireland there is no need for hardships in the allocation of water. If, as Senator Cannon pointed out, a policy of rainwater harvesting were in place, we could have avoided many of the restrictions imposed recently, especially considering our high annual precipitation rates. It is important such a policy is examined and put in place across the country. We also have an obligation to future generations to be radical in how we best use natural resources.
I am concerned there is no political will on the part of the Government to develop a coherent strategy of water supply management as a priority. Local authorities are allocated their funding by central government. Many of them will be required to use much of their annual budgets to restore and repair road networks and water pipes affected during the recent weather. Up to €300 million was earmarked for the upgrading of the public water network, much of whichwill be used to repair burst pipes. Will the Minister explain in more detail how this willhappen?
I reiterate that the motion is extremely fair. It calls on the Government to act. I hope the Senators opposite, rather than dividing the House, will agree to the motion as it stands——
We will agree to it when it is amended.
——in order that we might show the people that we are committed to developing a publicly-owned water utility company, that we will establish a new utilities commission, that we will make provision to ensure that water supplies will be uninterrupted in the wake of future weather events and that a quick response to any emergencies which might arise will be forthcoming at all times.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House but it should not divide on this issue.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well. He took us by surprise with his recent announcement. Members of this House have always known him to be a decent and honourable man. I wish him very well and I admire him for his decency.
As previous speakers indicated, this is an important motion. There is no doubt that the pipes by means of which water is supplied to homes, businesses etc., were not laid a sufficient depth below ground. As with other things in society at present, the existing water system is not fit for purpose and must be the subject of major remedial works. We all empathise with those in many different parts of the country who suffered so much as a result of what happened following the recent thaw. The water restrictions that were imposed gave rise to severe hardship on the part of many people. One would have thought that what occurred recently would be completely unacceptable in the modern age. Families and businesses suffered greatly.
We have an outdated and fragmented water network and it is obvious that the system of pipes which obtains is inadequate. It is scandalous that, on average, 43% of Ireland's drinking water is lost through unidentified leaks. One would have thought that with the engineering expertise available, there would not continue to be such a huge number of unidentified leaks. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's views on that matter, particularly in the context of the position which applies in each of the local authority areas.
Water is one of the most important resources at our disposal. We cannot live without it. Water is of the utmost importance in so many different ways to both human beings and animals. It is necessary for washing, cleaning etc. Unless it proves possible at some point to obtain it directly from the sky in treated form, it is obvious that water will never come free of charge. There are major costs associated with treating water and piping it into people's homes. As already stated, the system of pipes used for delivering water supplies to people's homes and businesses is completely inadequate.
I accept that everyone is opposed to quangos and that there is a need to reduce the number of such bodies. However, in a small country such as Ireland the multiplicity of local authorities cannot be left with responsibility for managing water supplies. There is a need for a water utility company or whatever to be given overall responsibility for water. The management of water must be centralised. We can use the expertise that is available to the various councils, but an overall management strategy must be put in place. At the heart of this motion is the fact that the management of water on a national basis is of the utmost importance.
Those are the major points I wish to make. I urge the Minister of State and the Senators opposite to accept the motion as it stands. The amendment recognises the difficulties alluded to in the motion and, therefore, I do not understand where the difference lies between the two. Perhaps our friends opposite will indicate whether they are prepared to accept the motion as drafted.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Carroll, James.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Corrigan, Maria.
- Daly, Mark.
- Dearey, Mark.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ross, Shane.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Prendergast, Phil.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Carroll, James.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Corrigan, Maria.
- Daly, Mark.
- Dearey, Mark.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O'Brien, Francis.
- O'Donovan, Denis.
- O'Malley, Fiona.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Ross, Shane.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Cannon, Ciaran.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Prendergast, Phil.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ryan, Brendan.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.