Water, water everywhere, but who can afford the drop to drink? No one in Ireland, it seems, as the Irish government's plans to meter every household and charge for water has led to a torrent of abuse, and they're now rowing back rapidly before they drown in a whirlpool of their own making.
Public meetings have attracted huge crowds while events took a nasty turn at the weekend with violence reported at several protests. It was in that atmosphere that the government decided on a blatant turnaround on charges.
On Wednesday afternoon the Irish government announced a new charging regime to replace the old charging regime, which didn't even survive until its launch date due to the protests.
Under the new regime all of our annual bills are capped (max of €160 or $200) for the next four years. We will now pay far less than was originally planned, and the uncertainty about what we might have to pay is gone.
That second point was one that was totally overlooked by the government: people were genuinely afraid of what their water bill might look like. It looked like $23.18 for every 1,000 gallons on average after a free allocation was used up.
By way of comparison, the cost per 1,000 gallons in the upstate NY town where I grew up – Clifton Park – is $3.76, but there is no free allocation, and that doesn't include sewage as the Irish charge does.
But how much water do we use? The newspapers provided some average usage figures from other European countries. The Irish Times says the average amount of water used by a family of four is 47,551 gallons (180,000 liters) per year. So if you're talking about two adults and two children that would have an average charge of $660.
Yet, if one of those children was over 18 the charge would be $790. In Clifton Park, that same family, regardless of the children's ages, would pay $443* . Little wonder everyone was confused.
So you had uncertainty about how much water people actually used and at $23 per 1,000 gallons that uncertainty was not over small change. Then you had all those families with children in college or possibly still in high school, but over 18, and there was no allowance for them.
That, of course, was a big part of the problem, but then there were (a) the reports in the media about the perks that those who are going to be working at the new Irish Water company are going to get, and (b) the big lie.
And what was that lie? “Water is a scarce resource.” That has been like a mantra for the government for a while now. At first we heard it only from the Green Party members in the last government, but in the run-up to the introduction of the water charges the current government seemed to love the sound of that one and they repeated it again and again.
Now, it's true. Water is a scarce resource: if you live just about anywhere else on Earth. Here in Ireland, however, with a total population on the island of 6.5m and enough rainwater for, oh I don't know, 200m, it's hard to argue that water is a “scarce resource.” On top of that, is anyone really wasting water? I mean, nobody runs the kind of sprinkler systems that you'll commonly see in the suburban United States. Nor is anyone filling a swimming pool. So, even though it's not scarce, water is hardly being wasted on a massive scale.
All of this – the uncertainty, the excessive costs, the flim flam at Irish Water and the lie about scarcity – is why you've read and seen so much about protests in Ireland over what, to be fair, is unremarkable in most other places.
Drinkable water costs money and, other than a few crazies, I don't think anyone disputes that. And right now the Irish government needs to spend a lot on water because the infrastructure is old – some of the pipes in Dublin pre-date World War I – and are leaky and plain old broken. Too many people are getting contaminated water delivered to their homes.
So we have got to spend money on the water infrastructure and that either means higher income or sales taxes or some other mechanism like a water charge. The government should have been straight with us from the beginning: set a flat water charge added to our local property tax to fix our infrastructure and let that be that.
There was no need for a new company. There was no need for a sudden rush to buy and install millions of water meters. There was certainly no need to lie, pretending that Ireland is Arizona.
We will see, but it's possible that the government has successfully paddled away from the edge of the whirlpool with today's announcement. The costs are now known and more manageable than had been forecast. Still, this will leave a sour taste and the next election is less than 18 months away. It might well be a case of 'water damaged: everything must go.'
* I added $200 to cover the sewage costs, which in Clifton Park are based on the valuation of your house. That $200 is more than would be charged to the house I grew up in.