The politics of Dublin’s water scarcity

Aoibheann writes*

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.

Protests took place in towns and cities across the Republic, including Letterkenny in County Donegal, where more than 8,000 people are believed to have taken to the streets — BBC – KEIRON TOURISH

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 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “The politics of Dublin’s water scarcity”

  1. Dear Aoibheann,
    I enjoyed reading your blog post, it is very well written! I thought it was interesting to learn why there is water scarcity in Dublin despite the abundance of water, this was demonstrated well! The conflict of the government was very interesting, as you explain that the opposition argued that water pricing would be „anti-poor“, is only the first impression as arguably the rich get taxed more, and there later would be a redistribution of wealth. It would be interesting to explore what possible outcomes there are to shift public opinion and perception of the political situation.

  2. I would not have thought Ireland has a water scarcity issue. I think this is such an interesting case of this issue, because it seems to be so heavily politicized. You mention that the government should try to re-frame the issue, to help deal with the lack of trust people have for the Irish government, are they already trying to do this? Do they have any plans in place to try to educate the public on why they are doing what they have to do? If so, why do you think this has been unsuccessful so far, and what can they do to improve such? Great job, really interesting post!

  3. Hi Aoibheann, this was a really interesting post. I really enjoyed your writing style and I am currently researching for my Master Thesis on this topic. My only query would be that you have outlined that Ireland does not have any domestic water charges, however as it stands the Household Water Conservation Charge, which has been in place for over a year, is exactly that. Though it (unsuccessfully) mixes volumetric and flat fee pricing together, it would qualify as a domestic water charge. Thanks for highlighting this important issue

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