In Ireland, Water Will No Longer Be Free

A gurgling stream runs down Croagh Patrick, a mountain by the sea and an important site of pilgrimage in western Ireland’s County Mayo.  Though water-rich, Ireland faces supply challenges and is reforming its water systems. Photo by Sandra Postel
A gurgling stream runs down Croagh Patrick, a mountain by the sea and an important site of pilgrimage in western Ireland’s County Mayo. Though water-rich, Ireland faces supply challenges and is reforming its water systems. Photo by Sandra Postel

Ireland is surely one of the greenest countries in the world, but its management of freshwater in recent times has been anything but green.

Some 41 percent of the nation’s drinking water leaks out of delivery pipes – twice the UK average. That’s a costly loss given the expense of treating and pumping that water to the nation’s 4.6 million people.

Household water demand per person is estimated to average 102 gallons (386 liters) per day, double or triple that in other European countries and about the same as in the United States, where national usage is driven up by irrigation of large suburban lawns, especially in the drier west.

And with Dublin now running short of water, most of the talk about filling the gap focuses on capturing more supply from the Shannon River or other sources.  There’s been relatively little mention of conservation or curbing demand.

Much of this excess and waste traces back to a simple and perhaps startling fact:  In Ireland, households do not pay for water.  It is free, no matter how much is used.  And no one knows how much any particular household uses, because Ireland – alone among European countries – does not meter water usage.

But change is afoot in the Emerald Isle.

Last week, I visited Ireland at the invitation of the Mayo County Council’s Enterprise and Investment Unit to participate in an event at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology called Clean Water 2040: From Local to Global, What is the Future of our Water Resource Management?”  The forum was part of Ireland’s National Science Week.  And while I spoke on the global water challenge on behalf of National Geographic and our Change the Course partnership, the audience of water professionals and the public gathered there in the western city of Castlebar was quite keyed to the national reforms under way– in particular the new Irish plan to install more than 1 million water meters by the end of 2016 and to begin charging for water.

Primary responsibility for that transformation falls to Irish Water, a new enterprise that consolidates the water services provided by 34 local authorities.  Headquartered in Dublin, but with eight regional offices, Irish Water will work to fill a backlog of investment needs – including leak repair – that has resulted from more than a century of underinvestment in water services.

“Irish Water is on track to deliver the key milestones in one of the largest reform projects in the history of the Irish state,” said John Tierney, Irish Water’s managing director.

The first meter went in the ground about three months ago, on August 12, in Kildare, Tierney reported.   Dublin got its first meter on October 13.  All together, nearly 30,000 meters have been put in place.

For consumers accustomed to free water, the rubber will hit the road when billing begins, scheduled for the first quarter of 2015.

Particularly in hard economic times, the new fees may rankle the public.  But the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions conditioned Ireland’s debt bailout on the institution of a more self-sustaining water revenue structure – a sensible request, though perhaps painful in a country where unemployment tops 13 percent.

But as Professor Frank Convery, senior fellow with the University College of Dublin (UCD) Earth Institute and chair of the think tank, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times, “Unless we introduce coherent and effective water pricing, and use it to help us all become water savers, we are doomed to a decade of continuing periods of water rationing with all the costs, economic and social damage and inconvenience that this will entail.”

Irish Water’s Tierney estimates that the nation’s water systems need about €600 million ($812 million) per year in capital investment to fix leaks, upgrade infrastructure, and generally get on a more sustainable footing.

It bothers Tierney that so much water brought up to drinking quality through expensive treatment methods seeps out of leaky pipes or otherwise gets squandered.

“If you waste water after having gone through that (treatment) process, it’s a sin,” Tierney said to the group gathered at GMIT.

Sean Corrigan, manager of the Kilmeena, Ballycroy and Killeen Group Water Schemes in County Mayo pointed out that much leakage may be occurring in homes, not in the distribution network, and until metering and pricing motivate households to look for leaks, the problem will go uncorrected.

For my part in the day’s discussion, I recounted the conservation success of Boston, Massachusetts, a city similar to Dublin in climate and size, and which faced a like need to fill a gap between supply and demand back in the mid-1980s.

Like Dublin today, Boston back then was considering expanding its supply by diverting water from the Connecticut River and storing it in the Quabbin Reservoir.  Instead, pushed by conservation and citizens groups, the state water authority invested aggressively in demand management – including leak repair, pricing, education, and retrofits of faucets and other home water fixtures.

From its peak, greater Boston’s water use has dropped 43 percent.  Usage today is back where it was fifty years ago.  And the conservation strategy cost about half as much as the river diversion would have, saving ratepayers money and the river from ecological harm.

It’s a success Irish Water might take to heart.

Tierney said he hopes to see Ireland become one of the most water-resilient countries in the world. “

That’s a prize worth fighting for,” he said.

But winning it will take a good deal of water reform – and metering and pricing are the right places to start.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.




  1. Donlald
    February 6, 2015, 1:21 pm

    Happy birthday

  2. Mike
    Cork, Ireland
    February 1, 2015, 5:42 am

    There’s water everywhere in Ireland but unfortunately it doesn’t magically appear out of taps, it costs money to get it out.

    I know water is paid through taxes but that needs to be changed and the user made pay for what they use. People with their own private water supply pay for their own water and also pay taxes for everyone else’s water and waste this has to stop. Whether you like it or not you will be paying for your water before the end of this year. Just see the rebellion the property tax caused now everyone pays, the same will happen with water and waste.

    • Sandra Postel
      February 1, 2015, 8:53 am

      Yes, while many consider water a gift (of nature, the creation, God), it does need to be collected, treated, delivered and then re-collected as “wastewater” and treated again. All this infrastructure and management takes money. To embed that cost in taxes disassociates use from payment and provides no incentive for conservation and good stewardship. Flat charges (or no charges) for water are contributing to the depletion of groundwater and rivers in many parts of the world. As I note in my post, Boston, a city with a similar climate to much of Ireland, made effective use of pricing as part of its successful conservation program which has lowered overall costs (because a new river diversion project became unnecessary) and benefited users and the environment.

  3. Hugh Desmond
    Wicklow, Ireland
    January 24, 2015, 10:36 am

    Has comment been lost?

  4. Hugh Desmond
    Wicklow, Ireland
    January 24, 2015, 10:18 am

    The reason I am Irish is because my ancient ancestors chose to settle here. They accepted the climate of ‘Hibernia’,(Land of Winter), rather than seek the sunnier climes. The attraction was the endless supply of water. That’s why it’s also called the ‘Emerald Isle’.
    In modern times, we have neglected all our services, in relation to water supply, treatment and drainage.

    We are NOT short of water. Nearly half the annual consumption is being lost into the ground, and no major drought has occurred.
    There is, however, an inexcusable shortage of common sense!
    Revenue must be raised….and urgently, but charging by the amount of water used is unnecessary and the height of stupidity!
    To pay for SERVICES would be far more palatable, to the Irish people, than to pay for WATER.

    Having lived in Ireland, for over 72 years,in an urban environment, I also believe the amount of ‘water conservation’ practiced by the obsessive money savers, (usually, well off), will threaten a normally healthy drainage system.

    The ‘pay by use’ system is being put upon us because ‘Flowers are red, and green leaves are green…..and there’s no need to see them any other way…than the way they always have been seen’! It’s sad.

    I suggest an annual fixed charge. (Possibly linked to the Property Tax).

    Most people pay a television company, twice the amount of what a fixed water charge would be, and never complain. Can you imagine the uproar, …..if they were charged according to how much T.V. they WATCHED!!

  5. Brian Sneed
    United States
    November 25, 2014, 8:21 am

    Believe me, we understand and commiserate here in the US. Even if the charges take hold there’s no guarantee that the fees collected will go to maintaining the water supply. But you have to make your feelings known. The problem isn’t ‘water charges’ – it’s inefficient management and poor oversight of how tax dollars are applied to the needs of the people. I would say ‘go ahead and charge me for my water if you can absolutely guarantee that every penny will go to maintaining it.

  6. Frank Spellmam
    Dublin, ireland
    November 19, 2014, 12:02 pm

    I think we should be giving out about why we werent being metered in the first place! Irish water is state run at the momentand like it or not, because of our debt, we dont have a choice about the charge. Its either we start paying for water based on how much we use, or money gets taken out of healthcare, education, or our pensions. I love how most the people protesting about irish water couldnt have cared less about the universal social charge, or cuts to slaries and staff. Also its only going to cost 1 cent for the amount of water used to fill a kettle.

  7. Liam Rafter
    Cobh, Co. Cork Ireland
    October 18, 2014, 2:29 pm

    I’d bet that you have never even visited Ireland?
    Are you even aware the Nestlé CO’S remarks and what’s happening in Detroit in your own country?

    • Sandra Postel
      October 18, 2014, 5:21 pm

      I wrote this piece after my visit to Ireland in November 2013 to speak at a Water Symposium, where there were representatives from many corners of Irish society. Per your next comment, I am not, nor have any reason to be, a propagandist for the Irish Government.

  8. Liam Rafter
    Cobh, Co. Cork Ireland
    October 18, 2014, 2:25 pm

    Please stop being a propagandist for the Irish Government. We pay €1.2 billion for our water and wastewater facilities already. We will not pay again to a private company which only seeks profit. Furthermore I am reliably that more than 40% of our treated water is wasted through leaks!

  9. Elizabeth King
    Navan, Ireland
    October 18, 2014, 10:38 am

    Your article is inaccurate. The Irish people already pay for water (1.2 billion a year) through taxation it has NEVER been free. The set up of Irish water has nothing to do with improving the network and fixing leaks, as stated in previous comment, the money will go to pay (mostly) American bond holders like David Tepper, who are leaching our country dry.

    • Sandra Postel
      October 18, 2014, 10:58 am

      Yes, but paying for water (or energy, or petrol) through taxation provides no incentive for conservation and efficient use at the household level. So effective pricing is part of sound resource management.

  10. Ross Dumigan
    Cork Ireland
    October 18, 2014, 8:53 am

    We already pay for water through different tax regimes.The reason we are now being taxed AGAIN is because the water supply infrastructure has been completely neglected by the county councils who are furnished with funds for the infrastructures up keep which has not happened and they have now fallen into disrepair!!!!! The more important story here is why has the water system been neglected and where has the money for the infrastructure gone??????

  11. Trev
    June 12, 2014, 1:24 pm

    We already pay for it as a taxation. We are about to be double charged for the same product. The money will not go to conserve, or repair water pipes. It will go to pay bond holders!

  12. Carol McDonald
    March 17, 2014, 4:31 pm

    Love It!
    Texas has been dumping water that is metered and paid for on lawns for as long as I can remember and it never occurred to me that the emerald Isle would not do the same. . .

  13. Sarah Arnold
    Hattiesburg, Ms
    January 3, 2014, 2:18 pm

    Really,Really,Really AMAZING!