How can a city with lots of water have a water scarcity problem?
Look no further than Dublin.
Ireland has 10,600 m3 of renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant (Eurostat, 2022), and Dublin city gets around 1000mm of precipitation annually (Worldbank, 2021). According to Irish Water in 2015 [pdf], existing water sources supplied 623 megalitres/day (Mld) to Dublin, against average demand of 540 Mld, which works out to 375 litres per day per meter (CSO, 2021).
Several factors contribute to Dublin’s water scarcity, including the city’s Victorian-era infrastructure, rapid growth, history of “managing” scarcity by increasing supply, and climate change (Kelly-Quinn et al., 2014).
But the most striking factor is a lack of domestic water charges. Ireland is the only OECD country without direct water charges; water services are funded by general taxation (OECD, 2018) [pdf]. Ireland’s lack of domestic water charges exacerbates Dublin’s water scarcity problems. Missing prices complicate efforts to reduce demand, increase the need for supply-side solutions, and hamper Irish Water’s efforts to pay water service costs (Zhao & Crosbie, 2012). The absence of water charges is particularly ironic when one considers that the “Dublin principles” say “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good” (ICWE, 1992) [pdf].
Why does Dublin lack domestic water charges? Politics, and more particularly the Irish government’s botched attempt at introducing water pricing in 2014.
Numerous factors contribute to the politicisation of water. “Framing” — or the conceptualisation of an issue — has a significant role (Chong & Druckman, 2007). A frame narrows the focus to an issue’s implications for a particular set of values. Different frames can oppose each other, and the government lost the framing contest quite spectacularly.
In the context of severe austerity measures and the rolling back of the Irish welfare state, the government framed the need for domestic water charges as a means of boosting economic efficiency (O’Neill et al., 2018). The opposition, on the other hand, framed charges as part of the government’s anti-poor agenda. The opposition’s framing was particularly potent in the context of the financial crisis in which public services were slashed and widespread government corruption was exposed.
The government’s misguided framing, combined with low public trust, meant that the public was unlikely to support its water management reform.
Bottom Line: Irish politics have impeded the adoption of domestic water charges, which are deemed integral to integrated water resources management. A key issue has been the government’s inability to frame water charges as useful to the public. The government should try to re-frame the issue in terms of environmental or pro-poor outcomes, if it wants to shift public sentiment.
* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂