Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Prices, Property Rights & Water

Last night's Future Shock: The Last Drop was better than some of the previous broadcasts in the series, though only just. The programme was certainly very informative and I learned a lot from it. But while it was strong on diagnosing the problem, it was desperately weak in setting out solutions. For a less dramatic but equally sobering primer on our water situation read the excellent report from Forfás published yesterday.

Nevertheless, both the RTE and Forfás analyses skirt around the two fundamental issues at the heart of any national water debate:

- who pays for the water, and
- who owns the water.

Taking the first one, the issue of domestic water rates and metering got very little attention in either analysis: which is a huge mistake. If the price of water is effectively set at zero for consumers then the consequences are inevitable: waste, under-investment and neglect (cryptosporidium anyone?). The solution is simple though politically difficult: make consumers pay for water just as they pay for waste - either directly to local authorities or to licenced private suppliers. The only people who never seem to understand that people respond to prices and incentives (i.e.: taxes) are politicians - and too many in the media suffer from the same myopia.

The second issue is even more important: who owns the streams, rivers and lakes being polluted by household septic tanks and slurry from farms? I suspect that if Lough Corrib and the many others now endangered were privately owned by those with land adjoining them then the disgusting legacy of neglect and polution would not have occurred. Quite simply those whose part of the lake was poluted by their neighbours would be entitled to sue and demand compensation sufficient to stop the polution or mitigate its impact. But again, rather than empower property owners to protect their property from polution we are faced with recommendations for local authorities to clean up everyone else's mess.

And maybe if we can sort our own water pricing and property problems out we can help those with far more pressing water problems.

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