Following the 2014 shift in responsibility for public water and wastewater services from Local Authorities to Irish Water, the new national utility, and the introduction (and subsequent suspension) of domestic water charges, water policy has emerged as one of the most contentious and politicised policy realms in Ireland. Just as “water wars” have been waged in many other countries, perhaps most famously in Bolivia, Ireland is currently in the midst of a bitter debacle about how best to fund and manage the overhaul and future development of the State’s water infrastructure. While the move away from paying for water services through general taxation towards “full cost-recovery” has been to the fore in street protests about water policy, the recent water wars in Ireland have also involved contention about many other issues too, including how to ensure water remains in public ownership, how best to promote water conservation, if and how to respond to projected dramatic increases in demand for water in the Dublin region, the centralisation of water management, and the distinction between water and gas and electricity, the three areas of regulatory responsibility of the Commission for Energy Regulation.
Domestic water charges can contribute to the commercialisation of water, its transformation into an economic good from a public good. In so doing and as evident in the language of the Water Services Act, we the users of water are reconstituted as individual customers rather than a collective of citizens. Even if the step to privatisation is not taken, possibly as a result of a constitutional referendum on the ownership of water, commercialisation can promote a troubling transformation of our and water’s status. Furthermore, the use of water charges as an instrument of market environmentalism, that encourages water conservation through financial incentives, rests on and promotes the understanding of human nature and human action in economic terms. Premised on a particular conception of human nature, homo economicus, this also encourages us to regard ourselves and be individualised customers rather than collective guardians or “keepers of the water”.
The Water Commoning Group aims to extend the debate about water policy in Ireland and to establish water commoning as something worthy of serious and critical consideration.
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