If you’re one of the 4.5 million people who live in Ireland, you pay no water bill.
Municipal water is free, no matter how much you use. And no one knows how much you use — not even you.
Ireland has no water meters and no water bills.
In fact, Ireland is the only country in Europe with no water meters. Indeed, Hanoi has water meters, and Mexico City and Delhi. Just not Dublin.
Without any data on consumption, without any pricing, there’s also no economics of water use in Ireland.
For those who think charging for water has no impact on how people use and manage it, two facts leap out from a just-released Irish government report on water:
• Per person water use in Ireland is about 37,000 gallons a year — between two and three times the average for the rest of Europe. (Per person water use in Ireland is almost identical to that in the U.S. — but the U.S. has one of the highest per person water use rates in the world.)
• Irish water utilities leak an astonishing 41 percent of the water they pump before the water reaches any customer, more than twice the leak rate in the U.K. or the U.S.
But water meters are coming to Ireland, along with water charges, quickly. And although there will undoubtedly be raucous protests from people who have never seen a water bill, the arrival of water meters and water bills is a good thing.
Understanding how much water you use, and paying for it, even a small amount, is critical to having a healthy water system and a healthy water economy.
The purpose of Ireland’s January report was to propose a radical makeover of the country’s water system, a makeover that is long overdue.
“Our current model of water provision, where unlimited quantities of an expensive product are provided at no charge, is simply not sustainable,” says the report.
“We have an abundance of water,” says Phil Hogan, the Irish environment minister pushing the program forward, “but we often take it for granted, and we need to protect it. We have no consumer protection, no economic regulation, and we have too much unaccounted for water.”
Hogan, in fact, is selling the water metering in part as a jobs program. Installing water meters nationwide should create 2,000 jobs, he says. And he expects installation of 1 million meters to begin this fall, and be fininshed in 2014.
The water meters and water bills — rates have yet to be announced — are part of a larger plan to create a single national water utility, Irish Water, consolidating the facilities and responsibilities of 34 local utilities.
You can’t have smart water use without knowing how much water you use, of course. The Irish report says Denmark saw a 13 percent decrease in household water use between 1996 and 2007, as water meters were installed and water was billed based on use.
While Ireland being completely free of water meters is an extreme example, there are surprising pockets of unmetered water, the legacy of an era when providing free water was regarded as a routine city responsibility.
Thames Water, the London water utility, charges everyone for water, but more than 70 percent of Londoners have no water meters and pay a flat rate. The largest apartment complex in New York City, Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, with 11,232 apartments, also has no water meters for residents.
Part of Ireland’s water culture, of course, is abundance. And the report does pause to appreciate Ireland’s legendary lushness, in economic if not poetic terms.
“Ireland’s rich water resources will become of increasing strategic importance to the Irish economy as the value of water increases globally. … Ireland needs to exploit its competitive advantages and to attract more water intensive industries, and to explore all opportunities for using our water resources in a sustainable way to support economic growth and competitiveness.”
And those newcomers will get water meters. No charge.
Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. He is the author of The Big Thirst.