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Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott says he is giving the water companies a hard time over leaks. Dominic Wood thinks Prescott's adoption of the environmental agenda is letting them off lightly

Water, water everywhere...

The prospect of water shortages has become a major political concern in the 1990s. By the end of April 1997, Britain had experienced the driest two-year period in over two centuries. The wettest June since 1860 notwithstanding, many areas of the country still face the prospect of hose-pipe bans and other drought restrictions. Yet despite the historically dry conditions, the restrictions imposed on water use have remained unpopular because of the water companies' poor record on fixing leaky pipes. It is estimated that on average across the country 30 per cent of the water flow is lost through faulty pipelines.

Within days of New Labour's election victory, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott convened a 'water summit' at which he revealed a 10 point action plan. This was interpreted as an early indication that the Labour government intended to get tough with the privatised water companies. In particular, the press commented on the 'tough mandatory annual targets of leakage reduction' facing the water companies, and the fact that they must now 'offer a free leakage detection and repair service to domestic customers'. The media also reported the government's refusal to allow water companies to build new reservoirs until the leakage problem has been resolved.

On closer inspection, however, Prescott's water plan is not all that it is cracked up to be. Water companies were already committed to making substantial reductions in losses through leaky pipes. Strict targets had been set by Ofwat, the government regulatory body, in 1996. Announcing the move from the existing five year targets to the new annual targets set at the summit, Ofwat made it clear that the new targets will 'build on company progress in meeting the mandatory leakage targets already in place for this year'. What is more, most of the companies had already begun to meet the targets set in 1996. Thames Water, which has an exceptionally high leakage rate, was even forced to report to Ofwat every three months to ensure that its target was being met.

So did Prescott's action plan amount to little more than 'crowd-pleasing bluster'? (Economist, 24 May 1997) The water companies certainly think so, claiming that they are the victims of a populist manoeuvre on the part of a new government. But perhaps with time the water companies will come to realise that the water summit and the 10 point action plan actually let them off the hook. How? By turning water into an environmental issue.

The summit showed above all how the discussion about water has come to centre on the importance of environmental issues and the view that we all have a responsibility to conserve water. The overriding theme running through the 10 point plan is the need for water companies to prioritise environmental and conservation concerns, and to ensure that we are all made aware of our responsibility to use water efficiently and sparingly.

For example, the government's opposition to the water companies' request to build new reservoirs is couched in environmental terms. Ed Gallagher, chief executive of the Environment Agency, argues that 'greater priority in the next planning round should be given to nature conservation'. He also agrees with the thrust of the action plan which emphasises everybody's responsibility for dealing with water shortages: 'we need to move away from solutions such as building new reservoirs towards the more efficient use of water both by the public and the water companies themselves.'

In order to get people to accept their responsibility, the action plan calls upon the water companies to extend their role in promoting the environmental message, ultimately by encouraging people to expect less from their water supply. Water companies must 'vigorously promote water efficiency by giving away water-saving aids', such as 'hippo- shaped' gadgets that update the 'brick in the cistern' approach to saving water.

By adopting the environmental agenda, Labour's action plan actually reduces the relative importance of leaky pipes. The problem is no longer presented as a simple case of a lack of investment in repairing leaks causing water shortages. Rather, spurious envir-onmental issues such as climate change and rising consumption are presented as the problems which water companies must help to challenge by reducing consumption. Everybody agrees that pipes should be fixed, but this alone is seen as a token gesture against the greater challenge of changes in the weather and an increasing demand for water.

The collection, treatment and distribution of water has been transformed from being a practical question of meeting the demand for water, into an environmental problem which challenges the way we live. A consequence of such an approach is to think that investment into fixing or replacing faulty pipes, or, God forbid, building new reservoirs or developing ways of using underground water, would be simply avoiding the inevitable reckoning with over-use. The debate has changed from being a relatively simple argument about the lack of money being spent by the water companies and the government on servicing our water supply, into a discussion about what we can do to alleviate the problem. How convenient for the companies - and the government.

But does the government have a point? Should we be worried about the threat of climate change and the rising consumption of water?

There is a degree of consensus within the scientific community that the average global temperature will rise over the next century as a result of human actions. But exactly how this will be manifested in each locality and how it will affect rainfall within each country is far from certain. The weather patterns in Britain do seem to be changing and becoming less predictable, as demonstrated by the recent pattern of drought-then-deluge.

But taken over a slightly longer period, before the two year drought, the rainfall in Britain overall had not altered significantly. According to figures produced by the Institute of Hydrology, based on data supplied by the Meteorological Office, in Britain as a whole the annual rainfall between 1981 and 1995 was on average five per cent higher than the long term average (LTA - the 1961-1990 mean). There were only three years between 1981 and 1995 when annual rainfall over Britain fell below the LTA: in 1987 the annual rainfall was 98 per cent of the LTA; in 1989 it was 97 per cent, and in 1991 it was 95 per cent.

This picture is complicated by the regional variations where more severe shortfalls were recorded, and the situ-ation since 1989 has been worse than the 1981-1995 average suggests. But even so, only Yorkshire and Northumbria have suffered a significant drop in rainfall since 1989. In Yorkshire, between 1989 and 1995, the average annual rainfall was approximately 7 per cent below the LTA and in Northumbria during the same period it fell by an average of 3.5 per cent a year. But as is noted in the Department of the Environment's 1996 paper, Water Resources and Supply: Agenda for Action, Britain is not drying up as a consequence of global warming:

'The present situation of water resources for public supply is that England and Wales as a whole are in a position of surplus based on the average demands for water experienced over the last five years.'

Just as the spectre of climate change is exaggerated, so too is concern about an escalating consumer demand. In 1996, the Department of the Environment estimated that the demand for water would increase by 18 per cent over the next 25 years. This increase is no problem: it could be met by leakage reductions by the year 2000. More importantly, improvements in tech-nology mean that less water is needed in the home. Modern washing machines and dishwashers actually prove to be more water efficient than doing the same load by hand.

Water conservationist Barbara Chandler says that the most 'environmentally-friendly' washing machine will use around a third of the water used in a hand-wash, while the amount of water used by toilet flushes has been almost halved since the sixties despite the fact that flushes in the UK use twice as much water as those used in Europe and the USA (London Evening Standard, 23 April 1997). And the latest dishwashers can use as little as 15 litres of water a load compared with 40 litres if the equivalent was done by hand. Yet the efficiency drive that the Labour government's action plan promotes has more to do with tips on saving water by either sharing baths or not having them at all, using a cup of water to brush our teeth rather than letting the tap run, and putting bricks or 'hippos' in our cisterns. Labour wants to take us back to the days of wartime rationing rather than forward into the next century of efficient, user-friendly technology.

The government has encouraged us to speculate over future changes in the climate and the demand for water and how this will affect our water supply. But if the problem can be clearly traced to faulty pipes and a general lack of investment, how relevant is it to hypothesise about the future? We are in danger of rendering ourselves incapacitated in the present because of fears about what tomorrow may, or may not, bring. This is not to dismiss future challenges or to reject planning ahead for the years to come. But whether we get more or less rain in the future, we need a better system of dealing with the rain that we do get, to ensure that it is collected, treated and distributed effectively to meet our demands.

Better management of our water supply should not, however, mean that we all have to account for every drop of water we use. We should not allow the debate about our water supply to turn basic acts, such as having a bath and flushing the toilet, into selfish demands. Why should we be made to feel demanding for carrying out the most rudimentary aspects of modern life?

Water has become a metaphor for our times, when limits and restraints are the order of the day. Water is one resource without which we cannot survive. Water shortages have been used to illustrate a view of the world in which a fragile natural order is being jeopardised by increasing human demands. The fact that more people quite rightly expect dishwashers, washing machines and power showers as a normal part of their lives is characterised as the problem facing the planet, and the way we live on it.

Labour's action plan reinforces the austere mood, and consequently the water companies face little real pressure to improve upon the service they provide. The focus on the environmental constraints affecting our water supplies absolves them of any real responsibility. As long as the focus is on every individual conserving water, and not on how the industry can develop new ways of meeting our needs, the water companies are not answerable for any restrictions to our water supply.

Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997

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