The excuses run dry

Who's wasting water? Not the consumers but a profligate industry, argues Geoffrey Lean
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QUESTION. what multi-billion pound business regularly castigates its customers for using too much of its product? Answer. Britain's privatised, hugely profitable water industry.

It was at it again last week. Scarcely had the sun come out on this hitherto chilly summer when the season's first hosepipe and sprinkler bans were being imposed - accompanied by strictures on householders for being "inconsiderate". And the air was thick with warnings that customers would be in for more unpleasantness unless they learned to be "reasonable" and "responsible" in their use of water.

Southern Water placed a hosepipe ban on 50,000 homes in towns and villages in West Sussex, while two smaller companies - North Surrey and Mid Southern - stopped gardeners using sprinklers.

Meanwhile taps were running dry all over the country. Thames Water received 5,500 complaints in 24 hours from customers deprived of water, and had to place 70 tankers on standby to replenish supplies. North-West Water had to send tankers into Merseyside. And Severn Trent Water drew a furious rebuke from the chairman of the local Ofwat, the water regulator, when supplies dried up in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire late last week: the company, he said, had promised to solve the problem after a similar crisis last year.

"It's getting to be rather like leaves on the line," sighed a senior water company executive last week, and water shortages are certainly achieving a similar seasonal regularity - and are met with much the same bewildered incredulity. The first hosepipe ban is as reliable a harbinger of sunny weather as the first cuckoo is of spring - except, of course, that bans often stay in force throughout the winter.

Usually the water companies blame the weather. This year that will not wash. Last winter was the wettest since 1869. By spring the reservoirs were full, the aquifers sodden. Just four months ago the Water Services Association, which represents the 10 big privatised companies, said: "We would think it highly improbable that there would be any ban this summer." Even now, says the National Rivers Authority, water levels are "above average for the time of year" despite "exceptionally high peak demands".

Deprived of their usual scapegoat, the Government and water companies have intensified their attacks on consumers. "The water resources are fine; the problem is that people will use hosepipes," says the Department of the Environment, somewhat illogically.

Severn Trent's director of customer service, Terry Tricker, adds that the crisis "is almost wholly down to the inconsiderate use of garden sprinklers and hosepipes". He describes "unnecessary use of sprinklers" as "a shocking waste of water". Inconsiderate? Shocking? But "water resources are fine"?

They may not have logic on their side, but they do have a problem. The past few days have seen a quite extraordinary surge in the use of water. Companies have faced up to seven times the normal demand in the early evening, when people tend to water their gardens.

The water industry, in search of a rationale for a larger than predicted upsurge in water demand, offers the following explanation: the first part of June was dry as well as cold, gardens became parched but their owners did not notice. Then the sun came out, plants wilted rapidly, and gardeners rushed to get out hoses. A sprinkler increases household consumption fiftyfold, spraying out the same amount of water in a single hour as a family of four uses in two days - and some people have been leaving sprinklers on all night.

This has strained the distribution system. Though there is plenty of water in the aquifers and reservoirs, there is a limit to how fast it can be fed down the existing pipes. If people "upstream" in the system draw off a great deal of water the pressure drops "downstream" and supplies can dry up altogether. But you cannot increase the pressure to help those downstream without blasting upstream consumers across the kitchen when they turn on the tap.

"It is like the surge in electricity demand when people put on the kettle at half-time in the Cup Final," explained a senior water official.

But, of course, it isn't. The lights do not go off. The electricity industry, unlike the water companies, withstands the surge.

Part of the difference is that, though they may be controversial, the electricity companies are efficient - and are trusted to deliver. The water industry, by contrast, is awash in complacency and mismanagement, and its remaining credibility is draining away. Somehow it manages to produce regular water crises in a wet, rainy country, running with rivers.

With ineffable timing, Thames Water released its annual results - showing a profit of pounds 304m - on Friday, just as complaints from customers about failing supplies were reaching their height. They revealed that pay for board members had shot up by 50 per cent. (Chief Executive Michael Hoffman's salary rose by a relatively modest 19 per cent to pounds 295,000 - but then he also raked in a pounds 37,000 bonus.)

As their bills soar, householders remember a time when water was cheap and the system worked. Now it is expensive and unreliable. They can be forgiven for thinking that the only thing that seems to have improved as a result of privatisation is the pay of top executives.

When these same water chiefs appeal to the "greedy" public for restraint in water use, they are quietly but firmly ignored. Unsurprisingly, people who are paying a lot for water expect to use it without being considered selfish. Privatisation has changed the consumer's relationship with the water companies.

This is not to say that the water industry was better run before privatisation - it was largely managed by the same people. For years, the water industry's only strategy was to build more reservoirs or extract more water from the ground. The extraction dried up rivers, from the Darenth in Kent to the Derwent in Yorkshire: the National Rivers Authority identified some 40 "low flow" rivers in 1993. The reservoirs inundated beautiful countryside, forced people from their homes, and, in the process, sparked off the environment movement in Britain in the late 1960s.

Kielder in Northumberland, one of the biggest reservoirs in the country, bears eloquent witness to the industry's priorities. It was approved, against strong protests, because the then Northumbrian Water Authority swore that demand threatened to outstrip supply and that industry in the North-east would be devastated if it were not built. Yet even before the first sod was turned demand began to fall. The reservoir was completed in 1981 at a cost of pounds 170m, but it was nearly a decade before a single drop of water from it was used. Today, Northumbrian Water has nearly twice as much water as it needs.

Successive squeezes on public spending by both Conservative and Labour governments helped to reduce such idiocies. But with privatisation reservoir mania quickly returned. Thames Water proposed building a 33 billion gallon bowl of water surrounded by a wall the height of an eight-storey building - a gigantic dog dish - in Oxfordshire.

This plan was stopped by Ofwat. And for good reason. Both it and the NRA now insist that water authorities should embark on no new reservoirs or abstractions schemes until they have dealt with leakage from their own pipes. For it transpires that the biggest waster of water are those same companies which chide their customers for profligacy. They waste it on a gigantic scale. Well over a quarter of the water the companies put into their pipes never reaches consumers.

Last week, in a late amendment to the Environment Bill now completing its course through Parliament, the Government placed a statutory duty on each water company to "promote the efficient use of waters by its customers". The move, an important victory for the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which has long campaigned for it, may mean that the water industry thinks more creatively about ways of saving water - though it will be a wasted opportunity if this is only translated into further exhortations to consumers.

And it might lead to water metering, which would save water in the short term, but hit poor families. Even worse, it would, in the long term, give the water companies an incentive to sell as much water as possible. Would there be television advertisements urging regular baths to beat BO, selling sprinklers for greener lawns, offering Air Miles for flushing the loo? We might hanker for the days when we were simply nagged about our "irresponsibility" and blamed for the water industry's own mishandling of a vital resource.