Water is a gift from god. We have lots of water. I am poor. Water supply is the government’s responsibility.

The prospect of paying for water never fails to irritate people. But metering and paying for water services are essential if urban water supply is to be clean and adequate.

As part of my studies of how societies think about and use their water, I’ve listened to complaints about water bills in Lebanon, Canada, and South Africa.

Geography, infrastructure and water availability in these countries may differ. But peoples’ arguments against paying for water tend to be the same everywhere.

And whether heard on the streets or in the pubs of Dublin, Cork and Galway, these arguments are only half right.

Yes, water is a gift from God. But people who make this argument don’t recognize that they aren’t paying for the water itself. Even in places with lots of water, payments are for the services associated with urban water supply. The ongoing, fixed costs like the chlorine used to clean the water and energy used to pump it around a city. The infrastructure that brings clean water to our taps and then take the dirty water away. If things are going well, payments might even allow century-old, underground pipes – usually ignored until one bursts – to be repaired or extended.

But the last two arguments against paying for water services – poverty and responsibility – are more difficult.

Poverty is a legitimate concern. When people feel under siege – economic austerity measures will do that to a population – they’ll inevitably reject any new fee that drains their already stretched monthly allotment. Like Ireland today, South Africa has also struggled to implement payment regimes based on water use under conditions of poverty.

After a series of droughts and massive political change in the early 1990s, South Africa’s new African National Congress government promised basic services to millions of people who were without access to safe drinking water. In Hermanus, a small community on the coast below Cape Town, the municipality tried to extend these water services to the surrounding communities.

Like Ireland, the South African officials received an energetic rejection of any efforts to have citizens pay for water. Low-income residents rightly claimed poverty and rejected efforts to make them pay for water supply. The technicians who installed the ‘pay as you go’ water meters were berated; the new meters were repeatedly destroyed. Illegal tapping of the main water pipe made supply unreliable.

And I’m sympathetic to the argument that providing water is a government responsibility. In the mid 1800s scientists and health crusaders recognized that bacteria – think cities ravaged by cholera epidemics – was transmissible through water. Since then many governments have assumed responsibility to provide clean drinking water, to remove disease-causing wastewater and to ensure a reliable supply for fire fighting. This core water responsibility is at the very foundation of public safety.

In South Africa, the water responsibilities gave even greater legitimacy – or what social scientists call moral authority – to the ANC. For a time, South Africa had the most ambitious and progressive government commitment to water and wastewater services in the world. But implementing those commitments were hugely expensive for any country; South Africa’s efforts became increasingly constrained when people refused to pay for the water services.

So how do we reconcile this tension? We can start by recognizing that distinct social and psychological issues are at the foundation of any unwillingness to pay for water. When governments want people to pay for water services, they need to know their audience and communicate in a way that reflects the consumers’ concerns.

Wealthy households – often the largest water users – won’t worry about their water bills. No matter how high the price, water services will be a small proportion of their monthly budget. But for lower-income households, providing registration incentives and information on water fees doesn’t work. People who are worried about covering their rent or buying food for their children will always resent and resist paying their water bills.

Yet there are easy ways governments can lessen these legitimate worries. Fees can be designed as increasing block rates, where the more water used, the higher the price. Low-income households are guaranteed a free baseline monthly supply and messages should communicate specifically how payments are within the individuals’ and their community’s best interest. Messages could appeal to parents about the value of clean water for their children’s health. School programs could reconnect children to natural water settings and challenge them to use less water at home. Water bills can include information about how a household’s water consumption compares to their community average and reward efforts to reduce household consumption. Efforts to foster an identity as water ‘protectors’ can also help engage reluctant residents.

Water use is intimately tied to human habits, identity, spirituality, connection to nature and our sense of well-being. Economic measures and regulatory requirements are not enough: to encourage residents to pay for water services social context and household psychology must be addressed.