There are concerns about the ownership of water. Privatisation means corporate profits at the expense of people. It means raised prices, denial of access to water to those who cannot pay and reductions in the workforce. There are countries where privatisation has not worked. Since the millennium development goals were announced, 768 million people still lack access to clean drinking water, 2.5 billion people are without safe sanitation and 3.5 million people die annually from water-related diseases. The contributing factor to this has been privatisation and not leaving water in public ownership. I acknowledge the work Irish Aid does with its water programmes which are in the control of communities.
The 1916 Proclamation declared “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”. To me, that says our resources are owned by the people for the people. Equally, the Democratic Programme, passed by the First Dáil, stated “sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources”. In other words, the sovereignty of the people extends over the natural resources of the country, which also includes water.
We know there are many problems relating to water such as boil water notices, leaks, poor pipe network, problems with sewage, insufficient supply at times, not to mention the overabundance we saw last winter. These are part of the bigger debate with charges. Ownership of resources, like water, is part of the wider agenda on economic, social, cultural rights. The Constitutional Convention, of which I was a member, voted in favour of holding a referendum on the strengthening of economic, social and cultural rights, which includes water.
Many international commentators are astonished the privatisation aspect has had so little debate here. There are examples of disastrous consequences on communities abroad where water was privatised. In Britain, more than one in five live in water poverty, as a result of the British selling off their water supply in the 1980s. A report from the Transnational Institute research unit reported many countries and cities have remunicipalised their water systems over the past ten years. It stated problems of private water management, from lack of infrastructure investments to tariff hikes to environmental hazards, have persuaded municipal authorities to go back to public ownership. It pointed out that co-operation between public services has been the most efficient way of improving water services and promoting the human right to water. I accept there are issues regarding ownership relating to group water schemes and for farms and families who have their own water supplies.
The test is are we committed to keeping water in public ownership. I do not believe legislation is enough on its own. Governments and legislation can change. A Government could be elected at the next election with a huge majority, like the previous one, and change existing water ownership legislation without any recourse to the people or Opposition Deputies. We need to look at a constitutional aspect of the right to water and I commend Joan Collins for her work in keeping this issue alive.