LEADING ARTICLE : Every right to boil over

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The Independent Online
WE ARE hot, and we are bothered. The sunshine we craved for so long, now it is here in such abundance, does not fulfil us or relax us; instead it shortens our tempers and aggravates our tensions. Like characters in a Tennessee Williams drama we indulge our base emotions as we suffocate, raging extravagantly at noisy neighbours, rude drivers, dodgy computers, queue-jumpers, telephone answering machines and the rest. And just as our fractiousness reaches its August zenith, we are told that there is another drought. It seems the last straw. After all we have put up with from the privatised water companies they have the nerve to tell us to conserve water. We pay our bills, don't we? And goodness knows they are big bills. It's enough to make you go out into the garden, turn the sprinkler on and leave it running all night.

This is a temptation we should resist. It may provide short-term relief (and green grass), but like most expressions of temper, in the longer term it will only make things worse. The water industry has moved from public to private ownership but the ground rules about water have not changed. If it fails to rain, as it has done over much of the country since the spring, then we are short of water. If we sprinkle our gardens we only aggravate that lack and bring closer the moment when someone who really needs the water goes short. It may be infuriating, but it is a fact. And nor can we blame this state of affairs entirely on the water companies. As Nicholas Schoon reports on page 5, some of the responsibility lies with us: as private consumers, we now use far more water than the reservoirs are accustomed to coping with. We wash a good deal more than in the past and our dishwashers and washing machines consume more than their manual predecessors. We are also increasingly enthusiastic gardeners, as the proliferation of garden centres demonstrates, and that is an addictive form of water consumption - some among us would forgo a lot of baths rather than see the allotment, the lawn or the tomatoes go thirsty.

None of this means that those in charge of the water industry, and those who own it, do not deserve our wrath. They do. As with the electricity suppliers, the big water companies in England and Wales were virtually given away. Just before they were sold for pounds 5.2bn in 1990, the Government wrote off debts of pounds 4.9bn and injected pounds 1.7bn. As taxpayers, in other words, we got less than nothing, yet five years later the companies were making profits of pounds 1.4bn between them. The shares have more than doubled in value while dividends to shareholders followed a steep upward curve and executive pay rises have been among the most scandalous in all the privatised sector. This bonanza was funded, notoriously, by raising charges to consumers at rates, in the first few years, of up to 5 per cent more than inflation. What have we, the taxpayers and water customers, had in return? We have a more efficient water system, if by efficient you mean thinly-staffed. Undoubtedly, we have a cleaner, safer, less polluted water system, for this is the area where the water companies have invested seriously. We do not, by contrast, have a sound water system, for as we now know, one-quarter of the water that is processed by the water companies simply leaks away before it reaches our taps. Nor do we have a flexible water system, capable of transferring water from wet parts of this small country to dry parts or to parts where demand is unusually high. And nor, it is now demonstrated for the second summer since privatisation, do we have a reliable water system.

Two out of five, the water industry insists, is not bad after just five years. Maybe, but could they have done better? The answer must be yes. Many millions of pounds which should have been used to fund further improvements to the water system have been taken from consumers and frittered away on unnecessarily high dividends, unearned executive pay rises and largely unsuccessful non-water investments. So great are the profits that these companies make that some of them found themselves with an embarrassing glut of funds earlier this year and began to offer rebates to customers. There can be no doubt that they were capable of doing more to avert this year's droughts. The hot weather has found them out; water rage is righteous rage.