Irish Water and the EU Water Framework Directive: More than a Question of Water Charges

First posted on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the recent announcement of the establishment of a national water company, has, perhaps, understandably focussed on the related introduction of household water charges. The significance of the decision to establish Irish Water goes beyond the issue of water charges (which was signalled long in advance of last week’s announcement). Given the minimal level of detail provided by government on the specific remit and function of Irish Water, it is as yet unclear, how precisely its establishment will impact on the management of water resources in Ireland. Nevertheless, government decisions across the spectrum of water policy have been delayed over the past twelve months pending the formal decision on the establishment of a national water company, a decision which was expected in September last year. In particular, the question of adequate governance arrangements and resourcing for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has been put on hold.

recent study by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) on river basin management and spatial planning in Ireland, North and South, found very significant deficits in relation to current governance arrangements and resourcing for  WFD implementation. The study furthermore outlined three ‘strategic options’ for WFD implementation, each involving different institutional arrangements. These strategic options which include reference to the (expected) establishment of Irish Water are reproduced below:

A. Establish the implementation of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) as a function of regional government

Allocating responsibilities to Regional Authorities would establish a clear linkage between river basin management and strategic spatial planning. It would also allow for a significant concentration of resources and expertise at the regional scale and thus development of the required critical mass for effective action, which is not currently available at the level of local authorities. The spatial mismatch between the boundaries of Regions (NUTS III) and River Basin Districts would, however, require a high degree of close cooperation among Regional Authorities. Regional Authorities would also need to act in close cooperation with the water management and spatial planning sections of local authorities, as well as coordinating with sectoral agencies and stakeholders. Imposing an additional layer in an already cluttered and complex governance landscape brings inherent risks which would have to be carefully managed.

B. Centralise implementation responsibility under a new National Water Company/Agency

The current Fine Gael / Labour Programme for Government, includes proposals for the establishment of a National Water Company, provisionally known as ‘Irish Water’.  This is likely to be a semi-public agency that will sit alongside the Office of Public Works (OPW), EPA and others.  This organisation could be established with a clear remit in relation to RBMP implementation from the outset. The recently published report on public sector capital investment indicates that a decision will be made in relation to the establishment of this agency by the end of 2011. It also refers to funding of ‘priority schemes’ in RBMPs under the Water Services Investment Programme (Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, 2011).  An advantage of this model may be a close linkage between river basin management and water treatment and supply policy which may have significant benefits in relation to cost recovery and sharing of resources. Such a model, may, however, favour more traditional ‘hard’ engineering approaches to water quality protection; approaches which the WFD seeks to move away from and are associated with inhibiting the development of integrated cross-sectoral approaches. In particular, a centralised, sector-specific approach of this nature may make the establishment of links with spatial planning more difficult. This model would need to be accompanied by specific measures and additional resources to ensure that that planning decisions are informed by river basin management and water quality concerns.

C. Centralise implementation responsibility under the Environmental Protection Agency 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significant technical expertise across the spectrum of ecosystem management, water quality protection and pollution control. The agency already plays a key role in the monitoring of water quality under the WFD. This model has the potential to lead to the development of innovative multi-disciplinary approaches to river basin management drawing on expertise, knowledge and data from across the environmental sciences. The disadvantages associated with a centralised model, outlined above, also apply in this case, however. Fostering stakeholder engagement and public support would require considerable additional resources and the development of skill-sets which are not currently well-developed in a technical organisation such as the EPA. The experience of water resource managers in Berlin-Brandenburg points to the challenges for technical organisations associated with a shift to the more participative form of governance which the WFD requires.

D. Further develop and enhance the lead Local Authority model

The preparation of RBMPs in the Republic of Ireland was led by local authorities with a lead local authority designated for each River Basin District. It is evident that local authorities currently do not have the requisite levels of resources required for implementation. With significant allocation of resources to lead local authorities, this model could, however, prove an effective means of coordinating and delivering implementation objectives. This model would involve limited reorganisation of existing institutional arrangements. The spatial mismatch issue would not arise, provided the lead authorities had the capacity to ensure cooperation from across the local authorities within the River Basin District. In Northern Ireland, the value of stakeholders was recognised from the outset; however, there is still work to be done in the Republic of Ireland to bring local stakeholders within the action programmes – for their value as environmental experts in their own right, and as leaders of community-based action and education projects.

Retaining responsibility for RBMP implementation within local authorities would provide opportunities for greater integration with the planning and development process than might otherwise be the case. This coordination objective would need to be supported with specific funding including enhanced capacity in the area of environmental planning.  It would also be possible to devolve implementation to individual local authorities. Again substantial investment of resources would be required in order for this model to perform effectively. Specific provision would also need to be made for coordination across local authority boundaries to ensure coherence at River Basin District level.   In the medium to long-term, enhanced local autonomy may be instrumental to ensuring community acceptance and indeed ownership of local project-based measures which seek to integrate river basin management, and spatial development objectives.

It is imperative that key issues of environmental responsibility and sustainable resource management are not forgotten in the current focus on water charges and the short-term costs to the taxpayer. The ICLRD report which draws significantly on international case studies of good practice details the extent of the challenges involved in moving towards sustainable water resource management in Ireland. These include the development of expertise in specialist areas of environmental planning as well as the challenges of communicating across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries which should not be underestimated given the integrated approach demanded by the WFD. Above all, however, adequate response to challenges posed by the WFD requires strategic leadership and the allocation of a sufficient level of resources through dedicated budgets.  Each of the strategic options outlined above have both advantages and disadvantages. What is important, now, however, is that decisive action is taken to provide an adequate framework for implementation to prevent further deterioration in the quality of Ireland’s water resources.

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