With just two weeks to go to the start of the new water charge billing here we had another mass protest rally in the center of Dublin last weekend. The first bills for water will arrive in homes all over Ireland from the beginning of April, and judging by the mood of the weekend rally there is still significant opposition to the new charges.

The organizers claim that 80,000 people from all over Ireland turned up to take part in the protest at the weekend in Dublin. The Gardai (police) put the number at around 30,000.

Certainly the crowds were much smaller than the earlier mass protests, but the smaller numbers were more than compensated for by the anger of those taking part who seem as determined as ever that no matter what the government does, they just won't pay for water.

Despite this, the government seems quietly confident that the vast majority of people have accepted that what is now being implemented is reasonable and that water must be paid for if we are to have an adequate and reliable supply in the future.

The original charges structure has been softened so that the maximum that any home can be charged for water over the next few years -- regardless of how much water is used -- is €3 a week. The government feels that this has deflated most of the anger that was out there on the issue and the smaller numbers now joining in protests are evidence of that.

Most people still regard the new Irish Water national utility as a grossly incompetent quango which is likely to waste vast amounts of public money before it ever gets around to improving our supply system.

From its inception over a year ago it has been a disaster. Its priority was to set up plush offices, hire a large staff, pay its top people high salaries and bonuses, and spend a lot of money on marketing to brainwash us all about the great job it was going to do.

Its first action was to start metering water use in every household with the aim of charging on the basis of the amount of water used. To do this Irish Water began installing meters outside every home in the country, a hugely expensive operation which will cost over half a billion euro by the time it is finished. The work is progressing but will take another few years to complete.

Metering makes sense because charging on the basis of use discourages people from wasting water, which is a big problem here. But even people who support the principle feel Irish Water is putting the cart before the horse. The most urgent need is to repair our water system which loses up to 40 percent of water through leaking pipes before it ever gets to the kitchen tap.

Instead of spending half a billion euro putting in water meters, most people believe the money should have been used to make a start on replacing our ancient leaky pipe system. If that had been done, people would have been more likely to support Irish Water and accept metering and water charges.

Instead they see money being wasted on setting up a vast quango which is all about raising money and very little to do with solving the national water problem.

Adding to the resentment is that fact that for the next few years the water meters will be irrelevant anyway since the government has now capped the annual charge. All households who register with Irish Water will pay €160 a year until 2019 no matter how much water they use.

Yet Irish Water continues with the half a billion euro metering program even though you can run your taps 24/7 until 2019 and you will still be charged the same as someone who uses water responsibly. And of course that means that the principle of water conservation has been abandoned for the next few years at least.

It's an appalling mess, with Irish Water showing all the worst characteristics of an old fashioned semi-state organization which uses its power to blow vast amounts of taxpayer money to feather its own nest while doing very little on a practical level.

Its latest initiative is another massive publicity campaign, timed to coincide with the arrival of the first water bills, which explains how water is produced and what a valuable commodity it is. The campaign is extremely patronizing, and of course the accompanying graphics don't have a leaking pipe anywhere.

The Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly (a rising star of the Labor Party) was out in the media last weekend making a big deal of the fact that over 990,000 households have registered for the water charges to date which Irish Water says is around two-thirds of the total number of domestic users. What Kelly is implying is that this shows there is now wide acceptance of the charges -- but the reality is not so clear cut.

Many people who have registered did so only to be eligible for the €100 Water Support Services Grant from the government which reduces maximum bills from €260 to €160. To get the grant, which will be paid next September, households must register with Irish Water.

This does not mean that all these households will actually pay their bills when they get them next month. A lot of people may be adopting a wait and see approach. If they see that a significant number of people continue to refuse to pay they may decide that for them to do so would be stupid as well as unfair.

The picture is even more fuzzy because the government has already made it clear that no non-paying house will have water cut off or reduced in pressure and that there will be no action of any kind against non-payers for at least a year (by which time we may have a new government!).

Irish Water could take people to court in the future, but given the numbers that may be involved that seems unmanageable. The prisons aren't big enough.

At present it seems that the only likely sanction is that accumulated unpaid charges would be attached legally to the home as a debt and would have to be paid before a home could be sold. That would push payment far into the future and wreck Irish Water's plans for a big income stream to fund interest payments on the massive investment that is needed nationally.

As we said in this column before, there is a lot of hysterical nonsense being talked about the water charges here, particularly from a few politicians and pressure groups on the radical left. People traveled from places as far away as Donegal to take part in the protest in Dublin last weekend, and the cost of these trips would easily have paid for their water for the next year.

The fact is that the revised level of charges has cut them to a point that 90 percent of people here can easily afford. And those who genuinely can't afford the charge will be given exemptions.

No one likes paying, but paying the water charge for a week will cost people much less than a pint of Guinness. And of course a lot of the people who are claiming they can't pay for water have cable TV subscriptions and fancy smart phones.

The reality is that a lot of these people do not want to pay either because they oppose the charge on principle or because they oppose the government, and this is an emotive stick they can use to beat the administration. It's not really because they can't afford to pay.

The much parroted slogan that "water is a human right" and therefore must be free does not stand up to scrutiny. Treated water costs money to produce and that has to be funded. So if someone decides not to pay, someone else will has to pick up the bill.

No matter how much people here dislike Irish Water, there is a growing acceptance that treated water provision and waste water disposal have been underfunded here for decades and now need massive investment to bring them up to an acceptable standard.

As we pointed out here before, the antiquated pipes in Dublin lose over 40 percent of treated water before it ever gets to household taps. There are similar problems with supply all over the country and also with disposal, with sewage plants being inadequate in many areas. There are towns all over Ireland where untreated waste water, including half treated sewage, is being released into local rivers and the sea.

All of this is a historic problem going back to the 1970s when the old "rates" (local taxes) which used to fund water and other local services were abolished and the cost was transferred to central government which raised sales taxes and motor taxes to compensate. Central government was supposed to give back enough funding to local councils for local services.

The trouble is that over the years the money was used to finance many other things that voters wanted rather than updating water services.

Many of the protestors last weekend were still shouting about double taxation -- "we've already paid for our water” -- but the reality is that the money that should have gone into water was used for schools, the health service and so on. And we now have to deal with the consequences of that under-investment in water over many decades.

Up to now water has been the responsibility of over 30 local councils and that has meant that investment was neither adequate nor coordinated. One of the main reasons for setting up the new Irish Water authority was to sort out this mess on a national basis, borrowing the €10 to €15 billion that is needed for investment in water infrastructure on the markets and funding repayments on that through water charges.

Doing it this way means the state does not have the huge cost involved on its books and so can meet its deficit reduction target, a vital factor in our economic recovery and our strong position in the financial markets.

Almost every other country in Europe has water charges. People in the U.S. know all about water supply problems and face charges that are far higher than what is being implemented here. But here in Ireland the moaners are behaving like this is the most unjust outrage every perpetrated on the Irish people.

At this stage it's a joke. But it's a drip, drip situation that could still do enough damage to drown the government's improving chances of re-election.

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