Weekly Column

Water, water everywhere

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… but not a drop to drink. Water is rarely out of the news these days. Sewage pollution, hosepipe bans, flooding, leakage, prices, and now Thames Water’s financial troubles. Water is what makes life possible on our planet. We use about 14 billion litres of it every day and will need 4 billion more by 2050. Storm overflows (partly thanks to Climate Change) have been largely responsible for recent unacceptable sewage pollution in our rivers and sea. Our Victorian-era sewage network would wrap around the world two and a half times and it plus much of our water supply network is in dire need of rebuilding. It will cost £50 Billion by 2030. Ending sewage outflows altogether would cost an estimated £150 billion- more than the annual NHS Budget.We all agree that that work needs to be done. But the great question is: who is to pay for it? The water companies must bear the greatest burden; and if that means lower shareholder dividends (and lower senior executive pay packets), then sobeit. They have had a pretty good time over the years, and now may be pay-back time at least for some of them. But if they are to do what is required of them, it will also mean sharply increased water bills, which none of us want.Thames Water (and perhaps others) are facing a huge financial crisis. They need to attract investment if they are to carry out the necessary works; yet they cannot do that without reasonable profit forecasts. It may be necessary for the Government to take them back into some kind of caretaker arrangement while they restructure. But there must be no talk of ‘nationalisation’. Government ownership would not reduce the £50 Billion needed. It would simply mean that taxpayers bear the entire burden rather than all water users. And if sewage systems were competing for Government funds with schools and hospitals, I know which would win.Anyhow, privatisation has actually been a huge success- bringing billions into water, albeit apparently not quite enough. We have made progress over the years. We have superb rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastlines, as well as 85% of the world’s rare chalk streams, many right here in Wiltshire. Last year 93% of our bathing waters were classified as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from 76% in 2010. Supply interruptions to customers have decreased five-fold and leakage has been cut by a third since privatisation. Pollution in our rivers has significantly reduced. There is now 80% less phosphorus and 85% less ammonia compared to 1990. And the Government’s Plan for Water brings forward radical ideas to go further. Amongst a whole array of policies, it promises £1.6 billion to help tackle storm overflows. It calls for new homes to be designed to make better use of water. And it tackles every source of pollution from run-off from roads and fields, to banning harmful chemicals and unnecessary use of plastic. Zac Goldsmith’s resignation letter is 2 pages of praise for our environmental achievements of the last few years, followed by a bitter personal attack on the PM. More to this than meets the eye, methinks.I used to spend my holidays in an old Scottish ‘Hydro’ – a spa hotel effectively - where there was a strict ban on alcohol, and whose motto “Ariston men Hydor’ is the Greek for ‘water is best.’ (You’ll also find it above the entrance to the Pump Rooms in Bath.) If only it was that simple…..

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James Gray
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Published Date
June 30, 2023