Monday, 21 May 2012

Opening World Congress on Water Climate and Energy in Dublin

Last week I had the pleasure of opening the World Congress on Water Climate and Energy in the Dublin Convention Centre together with Irish MEP Mairéad McGuinness and Mr Paul Reiter Executive Director of the International Water Association (IWA). The reason I was asked to do this was that Engineers Ireland is the National Governing Body for the IWA who organised the conference. It was last held in Dublin in 1992. The conference running for 4 days was attended by 1,200 delegates from all over the world with many exotic examples of traditional forms of dress and headgear on display.

I used the opportunity to update the Congress in the new Irish Government initiative on Irish Water and to set this development in the context of European Water Policy generally.

Water is the key to life we know. It is also an increasing challenge to preserve it as a crucial resource for humanity - not least because the world population continues to grow and yet we cannot make more water! To further increase the challenge, water tends to be in abundance where most people generally do not live. This is true of the world and it's equally true in Ireland. Wars have been fought over access to water which is no surprise as humans can live for a month without food but will die in less than a week without water. Indeed the Vice President of the World Bank was heard to say in 1995 that 'many of the wars in this century were about oil but those of the next century will be over water!' Whether water will start wars or not we are not sure but we ARE sure that with the world population still growing that water will become an ever scarcer resource to be managed and indeed cared for.

PJ Rudden President of Engineers Ireland and Ray Earle Congress Chairman

Ireland generally has good air and water quality. In addition, energy intensity or energy use per unit of GDP is also the lowest among OECD countries. However despite this positive progress the current economic climate in Ireland represents a challenge for maintaining environmental commitments. It also presents opportunities to reassess and reform those policies that are both economically costly and environmentally damaging  - like not charging households for water usage, tolerating internationally high leakage rates from our water networks and sending more waste to landfill than is necessary when cleaner alternatives like recycling and energy recovery exist.

I might even say that there's nothing more powerful to effect real change in society than a good crisis. So let's not waste a good crisis and fix what is broken in our economy. That includes the management of our Water Resources.

Therefore this year as part of our economic recovery plans we are about to oversee a transformation of the Irish water industry. The Government here have concluded that a new national public utility as part of an existing utility Bord Gais offers the best opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of water service delivery, provide access to new funding sources and to improve strategic planning and accountability.

The new utility model to be called Irish Water or perhaps in Gaelic 'Uisce Eireann' will replace the historical role of 34 existing local authorities in this regard. This is seen as essential structural reform to deliver maximum efficiency in our water infrastructure and also because we had no funding model as Ireland does not meter or charge for water to domestic consumers. Currently only commercial and industrial customers are metered by the local authorities. Indeed thankfully it was made a condition of our IMF financial bailout that in future we charge all of our consumers for the public water that they use. A national metering programme will therefore soon commence which in time will fund a new investment programme to modernise and upgrade our water services based on use related charges.

Hosting a group of delegates from the World Congress on Water Climate and Energy to
Engineers Ireland HQ in Dublin. Back Row: Martin Nixon Sydney, 
Professor Michael Bruen UCD, Jerry Grant RPS Front Row: Ray Earle Congress Chairman, 
PJ Rudden President of Engineers Ireland, Roisin Bradford UCD and 
Dr Glen Daigger President of International Water Association

While there is some political opposition to this proposal I want to say here that Engineers Ireland fully support the Government's action, including the introduction of water charges on domestic dwellings. This not only makes economic sense - it also makes good environmental sense in terms of the “polluter pays” principle as an incentive to conserve the finite resource that is water. Householders currently pay for every other utility like electricity gas and communications so why not also for water on a 'pay by use' system. It should not however have taken an economic crisis in Ireland for us to come to our senses in this regard.

Ireland has also made very good progress on the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive requiring Member States to protect and restore the quality of waters on a river catchment basis. In Ireland River Basin Management Plans for each of the 7 river basin districts have been adopted. The plans set out the current status of our waters, the objectives to be achieved by 2015 and a programme of measures in order to achieve those objectives. Water pollution from septic tanks and other on-site wastewater treatment systems is also being addressed through the introduction of legislation for their inspection and performance monitoring. This we support also in terms of Minister Hogan’s proposal.

Therefore in Ireland despite our recent economic difficulties we remain optimistic that by adopting the right economic, social and environmental responses that we as a country, are on our way back to prosperity but hopefully a more equitable and more sustainable form than we experienced before. We remain fixed on maintaining our membership in a strong Europe which has been the bedrock of our recent environmental sustainability.

We remain committed to the principles of the Europe 2020 Strategy in terms of its five ever ambitious objectives on employment, innovation, education, social inclusion and climate/energy. Most relevant of the 7 Flagship Initiatives is Resource Efficiency in our economies which have a special relevance to Water, Climate and Energy. We expect this resource efficiency to be a creator of major economic opportunities in each of our sectors and of improving productivity. A resource efficient Europe will deliver smart, sustainable and inclusive growth but these objectives must now be tempered by the new rules of economic governance applied by the EU Stability Pact Treaty.

In terms of our future approach to Water we very much look forward to the EU Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources to be published later this year. This will build on the progress made with the EU Water Framework Directive and further consolidate our water framework legislation. It will ensure a sustainable balance between water demand and supply and the natural ecosystems they depend on.

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