THE OPERATION of drinking water treatment plants should be taken away from local authorities and outsourced to private companies because of repeated failures to provide safe water, the ESRI says.
The economic think-tank has called for a national authority to be established to take responsibility for providing water which meets EU safety standards.
Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the ESRI says that at least one water supply in all Irish cities and counties failed to meet EU standards in 2007.
It also notes that more than 5pc of the population had their drinking water polluted with manganese, iron, lead or aluminium, and that the percentage of people suffering from biological contamination, including e-coli, is "even larger".
"At first sight, these results are alarming," it says.
The 'Drinking Water Quality' bulletin published yesterday says that in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, water quality was not much better than in 2006.
In 2006, 88pc of people had something wrong with their water and in 2007 this was 85pc. Many sources that reported a problem in 2006 continued to report the same problem in 2007.
"Maintaining drinking water quality requires particular skills and expertise as well as resources. Given the results set out above, it is questionable whether the existing system, with the local authorities at the centre, is equipped to guarantee drinking water quality," the report says.
It adds that in some counties, the number of people using local supplies do not justify employing a full-time expert to operate plants, and that the civil service "does not offer a career perspective" for specialists.
While local authorities should remain responsible for ensuring safety standards are met, the operation of the plants should be outsourced to specialist companies.
"These problems can be addressed. For example, county councils could outsource the operation of drinking water facilities to specialised companies or responsibility for water services could be transferred to a single national authority."
The City and County Managers Association rejected claims there was no career path for specialists, adding that a "wide range" of approaches were used to manage water infrastructure. It added there was a need for continued investment to ensure standards were maintained.