Water rights of Ireland and Jordan

Ireland_wet_Jordan_wadi_rum_desertHere is a cautionary tale of two very different countries which once shared a similar water use philosophy and usage patterns. The right photo is in Jordan’s Wadi-Rum desert. The forest on the left is in Ireland.

Parts of this country receive up to 4 meters of rain each year. But Ireland was running out of water so its government recently brought in water charges. Here is why.

Jordan is one of the world’s driest countries, with desert comprising 75 percent of its land area. The entire country averages only about 160mm of annual rainfall and 41 percent of its land receives fewer than 50mm of rain each year.

Ireland receives an average of 1000mm of annual rainfall and parts of its Atlantic coastline receive nearly 4000mm (4 meters) of rain each year. Ireland’s driest recorded year was 1887 when only 356.6 mm of rain fell, more than twice Jordan’s average rainfall. With such a plentiful source of freshwater, Ireland never had to pay for huge reservoirs, desalinization plants, waste-water reclamation systems or Red to Dead sea projects.

In fact, in 1997, the government of Ireland decided that water should be a basic human right. So domestic water charges were abolished. Ireland did this thirteen years before the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 64/292 in July 2010 which also “Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

Water, they argued, shouldn’t be a commodity. Water should be a human right.

Irish residents took full advantage of this basic right. They washed their cars, dishes, clothes, bathed, showered and drank the free water. They could even water their golf courses and gardens during rainstorms and let their faucets drip 24 hours per day, 365 days per year– all for free because there was no such thing as a water meter!

Hundreds of thousands of new homes were built without any consideration for water efficiency. Flush a toilet in a brand new million dollar Dublin home and seven liters of freshwater will begin a journey to the sea. Water was free so one noticed or cared when leaks in pipes developed. It is estimated that 41% of Ireland public utility water leaked away from underground pipes before arriving into Irish homes.

The average Irish citizen consumed 140 cubic meters of water per year. This is between two and three times the average for the rest of Europe and slightly less than a Jordanian’s average water consumption of 170 cubic meters per year.

It wasn’t long before the rainy country of Ireland began to experience water shortages. Ireland’s just-in-time rainwater delivery system couldn’t cope as the demand from growth and leaks and wastage grew towards infinity.

An Irish government report published in 2012 concluded that “Our current model of water provision, where unlimited quantities of an expensive product are provided at no charge, is simply not sustainable,” as economist Milton Friedman once said, “If you put the Federal Government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there will be a shortage of sand.”

It took slightly longer than 5 years but in 2014, only 17 years after the Irish government abolished water charges, the water charges came back. This time the government wasn’t shy about putting a price tag on this valuable and limited resource. As yet another Atlantic storm drops torrents of Gulf Stream humidity onto this Emerald Isle, the Irish water charges are estimated to start at €1.70 per cubic meter.

Meanwhile in Jordan, water costs €1.92 per cubic meter but subsidies reduce this so that only about €0.51 of this is passed on to the water user. So unless you’re willing to soap up outside in the rain, a shower in Cork Ireland (1207mm rain/year) will cost more than three times as much as a shower in Amman Jordan. (271mm rain/year). Put another way, a faucet that leaks one drop per second would cost about 15€ each year in Ireland and only 4€ in Jordan.

But what would happen if Jordan ran out of water or if the government could no longer guarantee the purity of Jordan’s water supply? People might buy bottled water. At about €0.50 per liter, bottled water costs €500 per cubic meter. This is 260 times the cost of Jordan’s municipal water. Sometimes governments must charge for a limited resource in order to reflect the true social cost of that resource. This is certainly true of water. After all, water is a basic human right.

Photo of Ireland and Wadi Rum desert by Brian Nitz.

About Brian Nitz

Brian remembers when a single tear dredged up a nation's guilt. The tear belonged to an Italian-American actor known as Iron-Eyes Cody, the guilt was displaced from centuries of Native American mistreatment and redirected into a new environmental awareness. A 10-year-old Brian wondered, 'What are they... No, what are we doing to this country?' From a family of engineers, farmers and tinkerers Brian's father was a physics teacher. He remembers the day his father drove up to watch a coal power plant's new scrubbers turn smoke from dirty grey-back to steamy white. Surely technology would solve every problem. But then he noticed that breathing was difficult when the wind blew a certain way. While sailing, he often saw a yellow-brown line on the horizon. The stars were beginning to disappear. Gas mileage peaked when Reagan was still president. Solar panels installed in the 1970s were torn from roofs as they were no longer cost-effective to maintain. Racism, public policy and low oil prices transformed suburban life and cities began to sprawl out and absorb farmland. Brian only began to understand the root causes of "doughnut cities" when he moved to Ireland in 2001 and watched history repeat itself. Brian doesn't think environmentalism is 'rocket science', but understanding how to apply it within a society requires wisdom and education. In his travels through Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, Brian has learned that great ideas come from everywhere and that sharing mistakes is just as important as sharing ideas.

2 thoughts on “Water rights of Ireland and Jordan

  1. Pingback: Water rights of Ireland and Jordan «

  2. Paul Ringo

    Point well taken. Even though many areas have abundance of water, it does not necessarily mean that it is clean water that is available for drinking. Chemical contamination of rivers by an industry can make the water downstream undrinkable for those residents or swimmers downstream. Same is true for estuaries or bays. Once a stream is contaminated by certain kinds of pollution (or tributaries to streams) that river cannot be considered as ‘safe’ for drinking water or recreation (swimming, fishing etc). Salt water intrusion into aquifers can render a sole source aquifer of limited use for agriculture or drinking water. Rice can no longer be grown because it cannot be irrigated with brackish water. Everyone loses because of irresponsible use of God given resources.

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