Global warming and climate change pose new challenges. Severe flooding and droughts are becoming more common. The planet is melting fast. The rate that the Antarctic sheet is disappearing has tripled in the last decade. Consequently, sea levels are rising and pose a massive threat to the two-thirds of the world’s cities on the coast. 

At the same time, there are concerns over the effect that the billions of tons of cold water from the ice caps will have on the gulf stream which gives us our temperate climate. Meanwhile, we are draining the world’s aquifers, which took millions of years to fill, while 2 billion people have no access to safe drinking water. 

Water is essential to life: without it our kidneys would fail, and we would die. Yet, in Northern Ireland, we do not take this essential resource very seriously. We are profligate and wasteful in its use. 

We seldom think about how much we use in our showers and baths, cleaning our teeth or washing our polluting cars. We lose a quarter of our clean water through leaks in the infrastructure. In our homes we flush about of third of it down the toilet because we do not design our homes to use waste water. 

Unless we start investing properly in our failing water and wastewater infrastructure our natural environment will be further damaged through increased sewer flooding and pollution, our economic development will be curtailed, outbreaks of cryptosporidium will be a feature here as it has been in the South; and micro-plastics will be a major problem in our drinking water.

The latest annual report from Northern Ireland Water (NIW) emphasises that in 25 of our cities and main towns the sewerage and wastewater system is near to capacity. It estimates that we need to spend £4.4 billion in the period 2021–2027 to deal with the problems. Yet, as it points out, the funding model is broken. 

In 2007–2008, I chaired the Independent Water Review Panel which was tasked to examine the governance and funding model of NIW. We recommended the introduction of domestic water charges, supported by an affordability scheme to prevent water poverty. 

As metering was then an expensive option, we proposed that the charge should be based on the rateable valuable of the house. We opposed the privatisation of NIW and recommended that it should be a municipal company. Recently, Ms Ní Chuilín, Minister for Communities, has proposed the same form of governance for the NI Housing Executive. All our recommendations, however, including the establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency, were rejected by the Northern Ireland Executive at the time. 

There are four strong arguments for the introduction of water charges:

  • first, a fundamental principle of sustainable development is that the polluter should pay; 
  • second, NIW as a municipal company with a strong income stream through domestic charges instead of a government subsidy would be able to borrow independently from government; 
  • third, the Barnett formula – the basis for allocating funds to Northern Ireland from Westminster – makes no allocation for water and sewerage services; the expenditure must be taken from other departmental budgets. Since our report roughly £3 billion has been taken from these budgets to fund NIW – this partly explains the deplorable state of our health and education services; 
  • fourth, through our inaction we are passing the costs onto the next generation. 

The main argument put forward from opponents of water charges is that it would add further to the burden of the poorest in our society. An affordability scheme would prevent this and the argument fails to take account of the fact that it is principally the poor who are disadvantaged most by the sub-standard health and education systems. It is the better off who gain most by not paying for water. 

We face a massive recession next year because of the pandemic and Brexit. It is not the time to introduce water charges for the whole of the population. But a move towards it can be made immediately, by creating NIW as a municipal company and allowing it to borrow based on its current income stream from business customers. 

To encourage investors to provide the funding to NIW, these developments need to be accompanied by a legally binding guarantee that within, say two years, there will be a significant income stream from domestic water charging. 

In the meantime, the Executive should immediately explore ways to charge domestic customers for water. The fairest and most sustainable method is through metering. Since our report, water meters have become easier and cheaper to install. But if the costs are still too high, alternative methods need to be explored either based on household income derived Inland Revenue data or the capital value of the house. The current list of capital valuations is woefully out of date and needs to be urgently updated from the last assessment in January 2005. 

Global warming and climate pose an existential threat to all of us. Fixing our water and sewerage system is just one of the many challenges facing our society. We need to act fast and not wait another 11 years before putting in place a proper funding model for NIW.