Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK where the water service has not yet been privatised. That fact largely reflects the strong campaign fought by the trade union movement, in many cases led by members of the Committee for a Workers’ International, that defeated cross-party attempts (including from Sinn Féin Ministers) to roll out water charges in the early 2000s.
Northern Ireland Water was established as a government-owned company – owned by the Department for Infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Stormont Executive has repeatedly failed to prioritise investment on this infrastructure – despite growing warnings of both economic and environmental impacts arising.
The impact of untreated wastewater entering water bodies has been catastrophic for the freshwater ecology and fish stocks. Angling has been hugely impacted and water quality in virtually all major water bodies has deteriorated.
Such impacts have largely been ignored by the Stormont parties, as they are largely non-economic.
What is starting to focus minds, however, is the fact that the ability of property developers to build houses is now increasingly constrained by the inability of wastewater treatment works to cope. Northern Ireland Water estimates that 116 cities, towns and villages have had their development constrained.
Northern Ireland Water has identified that the overall capital shortfall amounts to approximately £2.2 billion for the period 2021-27. That level of investment would only address problematic wastewater treatment in 49 locations. The company admits to failing on its own targets. It openly concedes that sewerage water is now routinely overflowing from antiquated drainage collection systems into waterways and contaminating soil across the North.
Not surprisingly, when the interests of vested interests and profit are impacted the politicians have suddenly woken up to the scale of the problem. The solution posed as might be anticipated. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Environment Minister Edwin Poots raised the prospect of reintroducing water charges as the only means of raising finance to address the shortfall. The only solution to the failure of capitalist underinvestment in water infrastructure is to attempt to impose an additional tax on working-class people.
Environmental arguments have also been deployed by Stormont parties in support of metering, including by the Green party. The reality is that imposing water metering does not lead to water conservation, it only adds the burden on hard-pressed households. In the absence of proper investment, an incredible 161 million litres leaked every day in Northern Ireland in 2019-20. That is a colossal figure and reflects the scale of Stormont’s failure to protect our environment and conserve precious natural resources.
Investment in public infrastructure is only taken forward under capitalism when it is in the interests of the capitalist class itself. The failure over decades by Stormont and before that Westminster to invest in basic water infrastructure reflects those priorities. In order to clear away the dirt and muck bequeathed to us by capitalism, the working class needs to organise and win power for itself on a clear socialist programme for real transformative change. Adequate state investment and bringing the nationalised water service under democratic workers’ control and management is a key aim.