By Hope Steadman (she/her)
Snail-pace traffic, angry drivers and near-death experiences for cyclists have come to characterise the city of Oxford. Online protest groups are rising to combat the number of cars on the roads and drive public transport adoption up in response to the overburdened transport networks. But the morning of 4th October represented a moment of even more significant disruption to both urban mobility and people’s everyday lives. A burst water main caused extensive flooding to roads and cycleways for multiple days, cutting off water supplies and clogging up city roads even further (Oxford Mail, 2022). While Thames Water reported 300 homes were impacted, the Oxfordshire Association of Care Providers have estimated this is closer to 3000, with several vulnerable or elderly people losing access to water and having to rely on deliveries of bottled water (OACP, 2022). It's worth noting that the event is by far not the first significant burst in the UK, or the Thames region alone, and comes at a time when a drought has been declared and a hosepipe ban remains in place. Thames Water’s PR team has had a bad week, no doubt about that.
The event raises difficult questions surrounding the UK's water future. The country is set to run out of water in the next 25 years, sooner than many of us might realise, with significant population growth and climate change bringing drier seasons than our water network may be prepared for. The potential damage to health, wellbeing and mortality itself could be significant, alongside a predicted economic cost to London's economy of £330m per day (Prevention Web, 2022). How does a water company communicate the very real danger of running out of water, when its own infrastructure is leaking over 20% of the water it supplies (Thames Water, 2022)? How can consumers commit to efficiency measures like hosepipe bans when they're faced with recurring disruption thanks to leaky old infrastructure? And who pays for the work to fix the pipes? The current economic climate makes discussion of the pricing of water particularly problematic. The issue of water in the UK is very real, very political, and quite impossible to solve with just one answer.
Water companies were privatised in the 1980s in England and Wales, with full water sector privatisation remaining rare worldwide. The structure in place, however, means the consumer has no choice of water provider. Maintenance works are lengthy and slow, caused particularly by the complexity of the water network itself, with Victorian pipes still winding their way under the streets of London. Trust in the water industry is at an all-time low, with shocking news of companies polluting rivers and seas with wastewater hitting the headlines recently (BBC News, 2022a). Big news headlines, poor customer service and news of ginormous CEO salaries paint the water industry as, at best, a slow and outdated industry, and at worst, incompetent to deal with the issues it is facing.
This blog isn't intended to provide solutions to the problem, to call for stricter regulation, industry reform or increased operational efficiencies in water companies (although none of the above seem like bad ideas). It’s increasingly unlikely there’s a ‘fix-all’ solution to the many issues the sector is facing. But there are some potential opportunities which are worth exploring.
Returning to the water pollution events of 2022, there does seem to have been a step in the right direction. The government this month has announced a proposal to increase the penalty for water companies polluting the environment from £250,000 to £250 million (DEFRA, 2022). Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena was quoted saying:
"I have been clear that if water companies don’t do what is expected, there will be consequences. Bigger financial penalties will act as a greater deterrent and push water companies to do more, and faster, when it comes to investing in infrastructure and improving the quality of our water.
This 1,000-fold increase sends a clear signal that we want clean rivers and coastlines, and that the duty falls to the water companies to deliver – the polluter must pay."
The proposal will be subject to consultation before coming into effect, but perhaps this is a sign to be optimistic. While opinions on the role of government intervention will greatly differ, this will provide an opportunity to understand whether re-regulation tactics will be successful. There are questions around the ability of water companies to hit their pollution targets, even despite the threat of huge fines. For example, if they are required to spend more on infrastructure as the Environment Secretary hopes will be the case, where does the money come from?
Interesting, however, is the media attention and public outcry that came with the pollution events, with images of dirty water pumping down into our much-loved British coastline causing a particularly emotional response. This does seem to have prompted action from the government, at least, but the far more worrying issue of water scarcity is deafening in its absence. There is a continued lack of public engagement or inclusion in decision-making surrounding the issue of water scarcity. The Fatberg campaign in 2017 proved a hit in the UK, with surprisingly high public engagement in the importance of reducing oils and wipes flushed down our drains. The wastewater sector seems to be outdoing the water sector in garnering engagement. Which raises the question – is community knowledge valued enough in the water scarcity debate?
Local communities can provide a wealth of information around protecting our environment. For example, the local group River Warriors recently won a BBC Environmental Award for their work keeping the Calne waterways clean (BBC News, 2022b). Hundreds of inspiring young people are working to make their homes and schools more sustainable, Generation Z proving themselves to be the avid environmentalists we all should be. These good news stories are popping up every day. It would seem water companies could learn from their local communities, schools and environmental groups to collaboratively tackle the challenges they're facing.
Along with government policy and participatory governance, the role of technology could play a part in the sector. One exciting innovation we're yet to fully realise the benefit of is smart water metering, which may be more successful at catching leaks and giving users real-time information about their water usage, although they remain slow to roll out in the UK. Looking to the energy industry, smart technologies are now able to tell you how much energy each appliance is using and help you to understand where you could cut down (IME, 2017). Energy data is being used in studies of healthcare at home, with AI able to alert health providers when a vulnerable person may have collapsed at home and needs urgent support (UCL Energy Institute, 2017). It doesn't seem impossible that one day soon, the water industry will, and should, be investing in technology to solve for issues like drought and pollution.
Around the corner from my own house is another leak that has been spurting out of the ground for the last two weeks, with no sign of a fix coming. In addressing the leak, I can imagine the huge array of stakeholders that will need to be involved – local people reporting the leak, desk-based staff booking in the fix, local councils signing off building works, operational contractors heading out to stem the flow, analysts recording the leak, regulators issuing the fines, governments reviewing the penalties. The same way of thinking can be applied to the water efficiency issue at large – not one single entity will be able to make a difference on their own.
The industry is at a crossroads. While it may appear to be broken, untrustworthy and old fashioned from the outside, it's not too late to improve public opinion and most importantly, avoid the environmental crises facing us. It will take a combination of confident and well thought-out regulation, collaborative decision-making and investment in infrastructure and technology to truly make a difference.