On World Water Day, Alex Backhouse and Phil Druce, members of the ICE London and South East Water panel explore what influences the UK public view of water.
Across the UK, water is cheap, reliable, accessible and, consequently, we rarely worry about it.
The point was perfectly illustrated one morning last month as people on my street started to pour their morning coffee and take their showers. Our WhatsApp group lit up with panicked conversation remarking that our water supply had turned brown.
Suddenly, the routine experience of turning on the tap had transformed. Water was at the forefront of our minds; the unfamiliar colour met with distrust and the supply no longer taken for granted.
Conversations became dominated by water as we called our neighbours to see who else was affected. We frantically googled “is it safe to drink brown water?” Many rushed to the shops to buy bottled water at a mark-up of nearly 1000% compared to the per litre price from their utility provider. Why? For the briefest of moments, we recognised the value of water simply by not having it.
However, this was short-lived as, hours later, our taps once again gushed reliably with clear water. It later transpired that a momentary reversal of flow had dislodged sediment, changing the water’s colour.
The fact we are able to routinely take water for granted is a reflection that, gripes aside, the UK water sector works well.
The utility companies, regulators and various stakeholder groups do the worrying for us behind the scenes, with media playing a vital role in maintaining the balance for the ultimate benefit of us, the customers. Just reviewing perspectives that have been reported over the last few years demonstrates just how this balance is maintained.
Continuous environmental improvement
Twenty-five years ago, it was common practice to discharge raw sludge into the sea. This was a massive environmental issue and, at the time, reported to be an unaffordable challenge to resolve according to the water sector.
This is now a distant memory thanks to the efforts of those working in the water sector but, rather than resting on its laurels, new challenges are being brought to the fore.
For example, “Levels of Somerset river pollution 'absolutely terrifying'” was the headline of a BBC article in 2020, pointing to the fact that all local rivers failed the Environment Agency’s chemical assessment.
The article failed to mention, however, that in 2017, the EA revised its chemical assessment parameters, as almost every river in the UK was meeting the pre-2017 standard.
This resulted in not one river meeting the new standard: a dramatic news headline. Negative media coverage such as this may present an unbalanced picture, but the result it achieves is a constant pressure on the sector to strive to improve.
Continuous downward pressure on cost
Utility providers are under constant pressure to deliver better value to customers.
Every five years, water bills are set again for the next five years. Each time, headlines such as “Privatised water company shareholders collect £6.5bn in dividends and interest” and “Gove attacks water industry over high pay and dividends” are commonplace. Such media coverage puts pressure on the regulator, Ofwat, to show how they are challenging the water companies to reduce the costs.
An example of pressure successfully applied can be seen in the headlines surrounding the latest cycle, such as “Average UK water bill falls 2020: how much you will pay from April”.
We have recently come out of a particularly cold snap, not dissimilar to the Beast from the East in early 2018. This was met with headlines like “Big thaw leaves thousands without water in parts of UK”, and resulted in Ofwat launching an investigation.
Yet despite similar (albeit briefer) conditions, we saw no media reports on people losing their water supply. This was potentially due to the water industry’s pro-activity in investing in resilience to ensure better protection against future events.
For example, Thames Water invested in artificial intelligence to allow them to better anticipate the likely impact of Freeze-Thaw events, enabling preventive intervention.
Again, not such an attention-grabbing headline, but it does highlight the continual investment in innovation being made by water companies to improve performance and reduce risk to their customers.
Reality versus headlines
So are the headlines that we are paying too much, investing too little and degrading the environment to be believed? After all, that is the recurring theme presented in the media, but, bad news sells.
Having examined some key areas I would argue that this isn’t truly reflective of the progress that has been made and that continues to be made. Behind the scenes, we have a system that is being forced to continually improve, innovate and deliver sustainable outcomes.
Despite the headlines, I think the real mark of public value attributed to water is the fact that we only ever pay attention to it for the few minutes of our lives in which we experience, for example, brown tap water.
I would argue that the water industry should in fact be applauded for its innovation and progress, but most of all, for its (not so newsworthy) silent reliability.