David Lloyd Owen - Unlike much of the media, people continue to have practical concerns.
- From: Vol 13, Issue 6 (June 2012)
- Category: Analysis
- Region: Unspecified
- Related Companies: Ofwat and Veolia Water
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What is the purpose of a water and / or wastewater utility?
Three answers spring to mind. The anti-capitalist NGO / trade union lobby may argue that they chiefly exist to provide jobs. The reductionist City types see them as vehicles either for optimising short-term shareholder value or as cash cows that fill corporate churns with full fat dividends. Some brave souls may say they exist to serve stakeholders such as customers and to be a part of sustaining the integrity of the water cycle. To a dismal extent, the first two viewpoints dominate our popular media.
Launching my book ‘The Sound of Thirst: Why urban water and sanitation for all is essential, achievable and affordable’ (Parthian Books) gave me a refreshing reminder about what literate and socially aware people worry about when it comes to water. It was fascinating to see how the questions from audiences in different locations were almost identical.
First of all, what was not asked? There were no pleas that water ‘ought to be free’, let alone that the private sector should be excluded. I suspect that rather than being swayed by my oratory, many in the audience did not exactly have rose-tinted memories about water services in England and Wales before 1989. Instead, the questions – and later discussions – were of a practical nature. Likewise, the evident reality of climate change and the problem of population growth were seen as quite uncontentious.
Is the drought over? Could the new signifier for the English summer be that fleeting moment when hosepipe bans collide with flood alerts? Many rueful smiles suggested so. This so elegantly illustrates the localised nature of water resources. Rivers and reservoirs tell one story; groundwater levels another. But why aren’t consumers being properly told why some aquifers are unlikely to be fully recharged without years of above-average rainfall?
Is a canal-based water grid the answer? It is a lovely idea in theory, but using British Waterways’ 200-year-old canal network could not bear the volumes required. It does, however, highlight the opportunities for local water trading.
What to do about the drought? Here, discussions opened about how to implement a shift from supply management to demand management, and then gravitated towards wonderment about why there is no official pressure to encourage people to use less water. What went down best was the suggestion that grey water recycling and rainwater harvesting ought to be plumbed in to the planning process for new-build housing in water-scarce areas.
Is it safe to use treated wastewater? As somebody who happily drinks Singapore’s NEWater and whatever the ‘magic mile’ throws back at us, I for one am a long-term convert. But sewage recycling is also about nutrients and energy.
In arid regions, are there vast groundwater resources waiting to be recovered? This is a theme that comes and goes every few years. Grand plans to unlock waters lying deep underneath Africa remain stubbornly unrealised. Perhaps they do exist, but not in a way we can presently use.
Can water meters help? People simply do not understand why Ofwat has traditionally been opposed to universal metering. The case of Tendring Hundred in SE England (now Veolia Water East) appears to be news to many. While the rest of that region remains in trouble, the one utility which was allowed to formally embrace demand management is letting its customers wave their hosepipes around freely.
How many people have been reached by the aid NGOs, and how efficient are they? For the UK-based charitable groups, my guess is 29-33 million all told, which reflects their emphasis on results rather than corporate hospitality. I did point out that official aid would best be used amongst the poorest developing nations rather than the wealthiest, and that aid should be a catalyst, not a sticking plaster.
For me, the message is simple. There is a latent desire for utilities to do well. Can the Water Bill be revised so as to let them deliver?