(Published in the Sunday Times, 17 January, 2016)

My father tells a story of his visit to a Japanese home in the 1960s where he was given the honour of the first bath. At the end of his ablutions he casually pulled the plug to the consternations of his hosts who meant to use the water after him.

Like any civilized nation the Japanese have long hallowed the ritual of washing. In the 1920s Laurens van der Post observed that ‘in Japanese homes the bathrooms were situated in places of honour with the best view available on to gardens and into nature, and never combined with lavatories as with us, in tucked-away corners in unconsidered and ill-ventilated spaces of our buildings.’

Generating clean water for drinking and washing is the mark of an advanced civilisation. One sees this in the great aqueducts of the Romans. Sanitation measures in many cities from the 1890s helped reduced the prevalence of fatal conditions such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery. Creating a stable water supply is arguably the most important function of a state in a world where water supply is increasingly scarce.

It is a terrifying situation that perhaps a billion people live without access to clean water. Revealing also that 85% of the world’s water supply is used in agriculture, much of it to grow crops for animal feed. Even in developed regions such as California water is an increasingly political issue with animal agriculture implicated. Surprisingly the current flooding actually jeopardises the availability of clean water due primarily to run-off of agricultural fertilizers into our reservoirs.

Over the lifetime of the present government the single most emotive issue has been water charges. Suggestions of corruption in Irish Water have justifiably been seized on by protestors. But that does not explain the anger of the Right2Water campaign. There seems to be an assumption that our wet climate offers a near-infinite supply of clean water. On an existential level the aggression of protests might perhaps be traced to annoyance with the Irish weather!

Protestors tend to ignore the very real challenges and costs involved in bringing water to homes and businesses, as well as ecological constraints. Moreover the infrastructure in our cities needs overhauling.

Of course improvements could be realized through direct government expenditure without recourse to what many consider another indirect, stealth tax. But the advantage of imposing a metring system is that it causes people to recognise the limitation of supply. Of course equality issues arise and the company should only cut off supply in extremely rare circumstances. But it might be a mistake to offer untrammelled access to clean water simply because someone is in receipt of social welfare.

We should develop a culture where leaving a tap running comes to be regarded as equivalent to a light being left on with no one in a room, albeit the cost of water is lower than the electricity. Moreover, attention should be paid to the externalised costs of our agricultural ‘success story’ that are paid for further down the line.

In the absence of the demand from the Troika it seems unlikely that any Irish government would have introduced charges in line with European norms. Investment in water infrastructure is for the long haul and its benefit is not immediately apparent. People only start to complain when restrictions are imposed. Improving its usually invisible infrastructure is a decidedly unsexy expenditure despite its delivery being probably a government’s most important task.

As the Irish population becomes stakeholders in the water supply they might start to ask the question of why Ireland is the only country in Europe which fluoridates its water supply, especially in light of a 2012 Harvard study of Chinese districts which revealed a correlation between impaired cognitive development in children and the presence of the substance.

Even if there is countervailing evidence the potential damage is so grave that it seems unacceptable for the present situation to endure. This is particularly pressing with the low rate of breast feeding in Ireland and consequent use of diluted milk formula.

Twice-daily use of fluoridated toothpaste confers the same benefits as medicating our water supply. Perhaps more effort could be made to improve dental hygiene, including flossing of teeth, and to curbing the consumption of sucrose which damages teeth worse than sugars found in whole foods. Just as the absence of water charges is eccentric in a European context, as is the fluoridation of the supply.

Analysts anticipate that water will be the major political issue of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately Right2 Water protestors, and their party political supporters including Sinn Fein, refuse to confront the real cost of bringing water through our taps or the need for a cultural change in how we see water. That is twenty-century thinking that does not recognise ecological constraints.

Of course whole families should not be obliged to share bathwater as was the case when my father visited Japan! But we should recognise access to water as a privilege not enjoyed by a significant minority of humanity. In Ireland the challenge is to change our relationship with water as well as examine what is driving up the cost and how, equitably, this should be born. Water charges should not lead to privatisation: the supply of water requires democratic oversight.


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