In 2000, the European Union issued its . This directive called for a more holistic approach to how water quality and levels of water pollution are assessed. It placed the focus on river basins, because this is where most cities, towns, industries and agricultural activities are centred, and because rivers are a primary source of water for domestic and other uses. (It also takes other water systems into account.) The WFD directed that, in future, water quality and water pollution must be assessed, not simply by water testing against a given standard, but by examining the impact of human activity upon the ecosystem of a river basin or water system as a whole. The impact on animal and plant life, changes in water chemistry and in hydromorphology, will determine whether a water system is judged to have good quality water.
The Polluter Pays
Another significant, related directive of the WFD is that the polluter pays principle should inform not only policy around major pollution incidents, but water supply and waste water charges as well. This has far-reaching implications. The polluter pays principle says that industries, businesses and agriculture must pay for the cost of water supplies and also for any waste water treatment of the run-off from their plants, premises or farms. All such costs associated with maintaining water quality are to be built into users’ water charges.
However, almost every human use of water pollutes it. Domestic washing, cleaning, toilet and sewer systems, all add dirt, waste and chemicals to the water we use. And so the polluter pays principle applies to domestic waterusage too. Under the WFD, domestic users will pay for the water they use and also for the post-use treatment of that water. This is already the case in the UK, where domestic users can pay as much for the quantity of waste water they allow flow into the sewers as for the water they draw from the water supply in the first place. (Waste water is also metered). The challenge for households will be to minimise water use and to minimise their pollution of that water.
The WFD does not allow governments to profit from water charges, but the directive recommends two policies which will push water charges upward. First, governments are directed to price water at a sufficiently high level so as that users will be motivated to reduce their water usage. (Higher water charges, together with more water-efficient technologies, have been an important factor in falling domestic water usage in many European countries.) Second, governments are encouraged to take a long-term economic view. In principle, this means that prices might fall due to anticipated falling costs of supplying water in the future. In practice, it is more likely to mean that governments will factor into current prices anticipated future increases in the cost of maintaining an adequate water supply due to higher demand, increased industrial activity, the need to replace or upgrade infrastructure, or more exacting environmental standards, etc.
The Challenges Ahead
In 2007, the Irish Government enacted the Water Services Act, which goes some way toward meeting the requirements of the EU directive, though many of the Act’s provisions remain to be fully implemented. As they are implemented, the challenge for households and businesses will be
- to reduce water use through elimination of water wastage
- to reduce water use through water-efficient practices and equipment
- to minimise contamination of water used
- to re-use grey-water appropriately
- to collect and use rainwater appropriately
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