LEADING ARTICLE:We're all to blame for water crisis

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The privatised water companies seem, once again, to have made a terrible mess of their business. There has been chaos, with thousands of homes cut off or facing rationing. Hundred of mains have burst - 350 in the North-east alone. Is it too much to ask, after more than a century of piped water supplies, that the network should survive a cold snap?

Yet anger at the water companies, already bubbling over at fat-cat salaries and inadequate services during the summer drought, should be tempered. The vast leakage from the system, making it impossible to maintain supplies in some areas, is partly caused by fractured mains. But it is largely a result of pipes bursting in homes and workplaces at a time when schools, factories and offices were closed for the Christmas break. The water companies cannot be held accountable for the failure of these users to learn the lessons of the past and to take precautions, such as lagging pipes.

Once the crisis developed, however, the response of the water companies is a matter of public concern. That is why Ofwat, the industry regulator, should announce an inquiry. This would investigate the preparations made by the water companies once the pre-Christmas freeze threatened the sequence of events that has since unfolded. Did the companies make adequate provision for alternative supplies? If not, Ofwat, which sets the pricing structure for the industry, should make sure that consumers are compensated with lower bills.

An investigation should also focus on the quality of mains piping. The extremes of weather over the past year - first a drought, which may have led to ground cracking, and then the sudden freeze and thaw - will have put some mains under strain. But if they were in good condition, they should have been able to withstand the pressures: pipes are sunk about one metre below the surface specifically to safeguard against heat and cold.

The truth is that the weather has merely exposed the system's serious existing weaknesses, caused by decades of underinvestment in the 315,000- kilometre network. Many of the fractures have been of old, brittle, cast- iron pipes - a type abandoned a generation ago in favour of more flexible ductile iron. Some of these burst pipes are more than 50 years old and are in urgent need of replacement. Again, the water companies cannot be blamed for the years of neglect that were the responsibility of their publicly owned predecessors.

The first lesson of the events of the past week is that the nation's favourite scapegoat of the mid-Nineties - the water companies - are not primarily to blame. The chief culprit and victim is the private citizen who has failed to invest sufficiently in the domestic infrastructure. The second lesson is for the water companies. This week's crisis demonstrates the need for them to renew a system that, if properly modernised, would not have faced the scale of breakdown experienced this week.