Water anger everywhere but no one stops to think

What exactly are consumers, the water industry and the Government so steamed up about? Fred Pearce unravels an increasingly confused debate Consumers, the Government and the industry are all steamed up about national water supplies. But is anyone talking sense, asks Fred Pearce but no one stops to think

JOHN GUMMER was in gushing, shirt-sleeved form on TV last weekend. Standing in front of a shrivelling reservoir, he told us to stop worrying about the drought and start enjoying "some of the best holiday weather for years".

And why not? No one has empty taps yet. There are no standpipes in the street. Most of the aquifers, the underground sponges that supply almost half the water in lowland England are still full after last winter's record rains. It is just that it hasn't rained lately.

Some rivers are running low and the reservoirs they fill are emptying. Currently, as Gummer's staff point out, there is only one drought order in place. In 1984 there were 104; in 1976 there were 136. No need to panic, said Gummer and his staff.

But the nation is not panicking. And it is not thirsty. It is angry. Angry at companies that appear to be rolling in profits, their executives becoming millionaires through share options and telephone-number salaries. Angry at companies that then come to us to explain that, to be on the safe side, we must stop using their precious product, a product we have already paid for. Angry at companies that then tell us there will be no compensation for lawns that turn brown and plants that die because of their hosepipe bans.

Even before this year's drought, says the Consumers' Association, the water industry was the least popular of the privatised utilities. What price its rating now? It is this anger, encouraged by hard-hitting Labour spokesmen with more figures about forthcoming enormous profits, which saw Gummer's position shifting as the week went on to threats of direct action against the water companies.

Subtly, but fundamentally, the attitude of the English to their water has changed since the regional water authorities were privatised five years ago. Until then the water was ours. Elected councillors sat on the water authorities, whose executives were engineers with engineers' salaries; and there were no profits. Now the money men are in charge, profit is the name of the game; and the water is theirs.

David Kinnersley, one of the architects of both the old and new systems, recognises the change. Kinnersley was one of the first chief executives in the first regional water authorities in 1974; 15 years later he was an adviser to environment secretary Nicholas Ridley on privatisation.

"The old municipal attitude when we all shared the water and shared the shortage is going,'' he says. "In the 1976 drought people made big savings in water use even in regions where there was no shortage."

But there is no chance of such citizenly frugality today, he says. "Because of all the huge profits and salaries the public's attitude is: why should we help to dig them out of their scrapes? Droughts are the time when we need to water the garden more - so they should provide the water."

Some might see this as unfair to water companies working hard to maintain supplies during the worst drought in 300 years, particularly when we are beginning to see water as a scarce commodity, "the new oil", rather than as a right.

But, in Britain at least, we are not running out just yet. In the driest part of the country, where rainfall is less than in parts of Israel, Anglian water has imposed no hosepipe bans, and doesn't plan any. "Anglian Water is doing well," says Kinnersley, "because they are accustomed to low rainfall, and they use it carefully. Others do not."

Anglian's spokeswoman explains that the company has built a water ring main between its three major reservoirs, so water can be distributed to areas that run short. And Anglia is also in the middle of a pounds 350m programme of replacing old and leaking cast-iron water mains. It claims a leakage rate already down to around 15 per cent compared to a national average assessed by the water companies at 23 per cent but estimated by Ofwat, the industry regulator, to be much higher.

Compare Anglian with its neighbour, Yorkshire Water, which has just become the first company of the summer to obtain a drought order permitting emergency abstraction of water from the River Wharfe. Yorkshire loses up to a third of its water in leaks. And the company never got round to completing its own ring-main system, the Yorkshire Grid, which was begun in the 1960s. "It didn't seem necessary," said a spokesman last week. As a result, large parts of West Yorkshire, including Bradford, are running out of water as the Grimwith reservoir empties, and the standpipes are standing by.

But despite the anger directed at the "fat cats" of the industry, the chief executives with the wary manner, the high salaries and beguiling share options, few of these deficiencies can be put down to privatisation. They are part of a long-term malaise of under-investment. Not so much in prestigious reservoirs with names on plaques and a flooded village behind, but in the rather less glamorous work of repairing and replacing the hundreds and thousands of kilometres of water mains that plumb the nation.

George Archibald, forecasting manager at Severn Trent, says: "For a long time we were replacing pipes at a rate of 0.5 per cent a year. This suggests to me that we expected them to last 200 years, which is just not on. But a lot of people in the industry still don't want to believe the point."

Complacency about water supply has been rife at the water companies, says Kinnersley. It arises partly because national water demand has hardly risen for 20 years, mostly due to the balancing of demand caused by the closure of water-guzzling industries such as the steel industry. Companies have built few new reservoirs. Water from the Kielder reservoir in Northumberland, western Europe's largest reservoir, has rarely been needed since it was completed in 1980. And grand plans drawn up in the 1960s to create giant reservoirs by putting barrages across the Wash and Morecambe Bay, for instance, or by trunking Welsh water to London, have been abandoned.

Without any urgent need to secure new supplies, the companies have left old systems to decay, and leaks have soared. And, with plenty of water to spare, their repair has not been seen as a priority. Indeed, according to George Archibald, leaks have been "the fastest growing element of water supply over the past 20 years". In many areas they have been the only one.

Even cheap schemes to boost water supply during droughts have been left half completed. In 1981 the government approved a plan to tap underground water in Shropshire and pump it into the River Severn when river flows were low. The river supplies water to up to 6 million people from Bristol to Birmingham. This year, the pumps have been working since late July. But, says Roger Goodhew of the National Rivers Authority's upper Severn division, "So far only two of the eight phases of the scheme have been built." So 150 million litres of water that could be reaching taps in the Midlands are not available. And now there is a region-wide hosepipe ban.

Such stories add weight to the claim by the shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown last week that under-investment in the water industry is cheating customers of a secure supply.

No doubt; but the claim begs the larger question of what exactly it is we want from the water companies: cheap water, or water whatever and whenever.

This week Ofwat slammed the water companies for their poor performance during the drought. But Ian Byatt, the regulator, has spent the past five years leaning hard on companies to cut water bills. Late last year, Ofwat published a league table of water-company "efficiency"based on the cost of supplying each thousand litres. Revealingly, all the large companies operating hosepipe bans so far this summer were in the top half of that efficiency table. The two cheapest suppliers, North West and Severn Trent are the two now operating company-wide hosepipe bans.

What looked like efficiency in the middle of a wet winter, looks like corner-cutting when the reservoirs empty in a dry summer. Meanwhile, neither of the firms with the highest water charges, Anglian and Welsh, has imposed hosepipe bans so far.

What actually worries the water industry is not this summer, but next. Some remember how a summer drought in 1975, followed by a dry winter and drought the next summer almost brought the country to its knees. We really did risk going thirsty then. So, on Thursday Gummer replaced his jacket, donned his serious voice and, ignoring the passing showers, asked the National Rivers Authority, the ultimate guardian of the nation's water, to prepare an urgent report on water resources.

"We need to consider the position if a dry autumn or winter succeeds this dry summer," he warned. His staff were also pushing a subtext which expressed unhappiness with the approach of the water companies. But this was not about too many unpopular hosepipe bans. On the contrary: the Whitehall worry is about the water companies that are NOT imposing hosepipe bans.

This view has some companies, fearful of public anger, unwisely trying to avoid imposing hosepipe bans. Eyes are on Thames Water, the country's biggest water company. Thames is refusing to impose bans and is instead running an extremely polite advertisement on commercial radio suggesting, with the benefit of advice from Kew Gardens, that watering your plants more than twice a week is bad for them. But, with the NRA reporting several Thames tributaries already dry and the water table falling fast in the Cotswolds, this might eventually prove a costly exercise in persuasion.

"Thames may not be planning for next year," say one Whitehall hydrologist. This summer's water debate may yet have another twist: as the water company chairmen return from their summer holidays this week, they may find themselves under fire from intelligent, public-spirited customers demanding more hosepipe bans.

water in leaks. And the company never got round to completing its own ring-main system, the Yorkshire Grid, which was begun in the 1960s. "It didn't seem necessary," said a spokesman last week. As a result, large parts of West Yorkshire, including Bradford, are running out of water as the Grimwith reservoir empties, and the standpipes are standing by.

But despite the anger directed at the "fat cats" of the industry, few of these deficiencies can be put down to privatisation. They are part of a long-term malaise of under-investment. Not so much in prestigious reservoirs with names on plaques and a flooded village behind, but in the less glamorous work of repairing and replacing the hundreds and thousands of kilometres of water mains.

George Archibald, forecasting manager at Severn Trent, says: "For a long time we were replacing pipes at a rate of 0.5 per cent a year. This suggests to me that we expected them to last 200 years, which is just not on. But a lot of people in the industry still don't want to believe the point."

Complacency about water supply has been rife at the water companies, says Kinnersley. It arises partly because national water demand has hardly risen for 20 years, mostly due to the balancing of demand caused by the closure of water-guzzling industries such as steel. Companies have built few new reservoirs. Water from the Kielder reservoir in Northumberland, Western Europe's largest reservoir, has rarely been needed since it was completed in 1980. And grand plans drawn up in the 1960s to create giant reservoirs by putting barrages across the Wash and Morecambe Bay, or by trunking Welsh water to London, have been abandoned.

Without any urgent need to secure new supplies, the companies have left old systems to decay, and leaks have soared. And, with plenty of water to spare, their repair has not been seen as a priority. Indeed, according to George Archibald, leaks have been "the fastest growing element of water supply over the past 20 years". In many areas they have been the only one.

Even cheap schemes to boost water supply during droughts have been left half completed. In 1981 the government approved a plan to tap underground water in Shropshire and pump it into the River Severn when river flows were low. The river supplies water to up to 6 million people from Bristol to Birmingham. This year, the pumps have been working since late July. But, says Roger Goodhew of the National Rivers Authority's upper Severn division, "So far only two of the eight phases of the scheme have been built." So 150 million litres of water that could be reaching taps in the Midlands are not available. And now there is a region-wide hosepipe ban.

Such stories add weight to the claim by the shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown last week that under-investment in the water industry is cheating customers of a secure supply.

No doubt; but the claim begs the larger question of what exactly it is we want from the water companies: cheap water, or water whatever and whenever.

This week Ofwat criticised the water companies for their poor performance during the drought. But Ian Byatt, the regulator, has spent the past five years leaning hard on companies to cut water bills. Late last year, Ofwat published a league table of water-company "efficiency" based on the cost of supplying each thousand litres. Revealingly, all the large companies operating hosepipe bans so far this summer were in the top half of that efficiency table. The two cheapest suppliers, North West and Severn Trent are the two now operating company-wide hosepipe bans.

What looked like efficiency in the middle of a wet winter, looks like corner-cutting when the reservoirs empty in a dry summer. Meanwhile, neither of the firms with the highest water charges, Anglian and Welsh, has imposed hosepipe bans so far.

What actually worries the water industry is not this summer, but next. Some remember how a summer drought in 1975, followed by a dry winter and drought the next summer almost brought the country to its knees. We really did risk going thirsty then. So, on Thursday Gummer replaced his jacket, donned his serious voice and, ignoring the passing showers, asked the National Rivers Authority, the ultimate guardian of the nation's water, to prepare an urgent report on water resources.

"We need to consider the position if a dry autumn or winter succeeds this dry summer," he warned. His staff were also pushing a subtext which expressed unhappiness with the approach of the water companies. But this was not about too many unpopular hosepipe bans. On the contrary: the Whitehall worry is about the water companies that are NOT imposing hosepipe bans.

This view has some companies, fearful of public anger, unwisely trying to avoid imposing hosepipe bans. Eyes are on Thames Water, the country's biggest water company. Thames is refusing to impose bans and is instead running an extremely polite advertisement on commercial radio suggesting, with the benefit of advice from Kew Gardens, that watering your plants more than twice a week is bad for them. But, with the NRA reporting several Thames tributaries already dry and the water table falling fast in the Cotswolds, this might eventually prove a costly exercise in persuasion.

"Thames may not be planning for next year," say one Whitehall hydrologist. This summer's water debate may yet have another twist: as the water company chairmen return from their summer holidays this week, they may find themselves under fire from intelligent, public-spirited customers demanding more hosepipe bans.

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