Thinking global, acting local: Plumbing perils and Cowspiracy

I’m still partially out of action due to newly expanded family tiredness so I hope you’ll forgive me but it’s another multiple post this time, as I’m struggling to keep to a regular posting schedule for the time being…

Plumbing perils at home

A weeks back I had one of those ‘put your money where your mouth is’ or rather ‘put your mouth where the water is’ moments that I guess are fair for a ‘water’ person, as my friends, family and colleagues typically refer to me. One of our toilet flush units failed. With young ones under my care and no ideal repair services nearby I decided to fix it myself.

Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.

Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.

The more I do DIY on our home I realise:

  • Building work on low budget, new build homes like ours can be really shoddy and rushed;
  • Even for a ‘new’ home, house designs, practices and technologies generally aren’t very ‘modern’ or sensible;
  • Houses should be easier for their own users to maintain, repair and enhance; and
  • Generally home fixtures and fittings are over-complicated, not built to last, and have fiddly, fragile (often cheap plastic) components.

All these observations applied to our toilet! The seal design on the flush inlet fill valve was poor, and hard to access, making a simple swap out of the rubber washer part tricky and likely to break the whole (plastic) assembly:

Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.

Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.

Where, how and presumably in what order the toilet had fitted in our bathroom also meant the side of the bath needed to come off for ever so slightly easier access, and the whole cistern had to come off the wall to allow me to be able to unscrew the inlet valve:

Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.

Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.

I was able to detach the bottom of the inlet assembly from the water supply pipe but physically couldn’t unscrew the plastic screw that mounted it to the cistern. No spanner in our house would fit and access through the inside of the cistern was impossible too. With a slightly different toilet design and more thought given the fitting placement, this whole task would have been a doddle. Instead I wasted several hours here, mainly working out how I was going to unscrew the old, failed inlet valve unit!

Thinking a bit more global from this local water-related incident, it made me think about whether passive or active technology in houses is best (after all, the passive so-called ‘flush-and-forget’ approach of most households to domestic water and sanitation infrastructure  is lamented by water companies, policymakers and academics). I remembered my colleague Prof. Kevin Anderson more than a decade ago working on an idea for houses where room functions would be rotated, season by season to fit best with the changing climate throughout the year. This would be like ‘spring cleaning’ in that you move your lounge area to the inside of the house to make it easier to keep warm in winter, then move it back towards the outside of the home in summer. This would be a seriously active, mindful and hands-on home to be in, and would increase connection to the seasons, I expect.

Anaerobic digesters for the home could be another option here – even home composting (although I’ve read up on that before and it’s surprisingly more work than most people might think to start it off and keep it going effectively). Awareness, agency and training would be necessary here of course otherwise there’s more chance of things going wrong. Our home, and many others in the UK no doubt, is quite passive – even though we have more eco-features than the average home. All our water fixtures and fittings are decidedly passive, fit-and-forget types though, in my opinion. And probably they are likely to cause us trouble in future (leaking glycol from our solar hot water I’m betting will be next) that we are not trained up to deal with. This is both disappointing and disempowering and leaves us with fewer options to manage actively the operation and maintenance of our home.

‘Cowspiracy’ on the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture

Thinking even more globally about things that could be changed locally, last month I got the chance to see the documentary film, Cowspiracy that’s now on worldwide release on Netflix (stating the obvious, but that’s a link behind a paywall).

Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source:

Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source:

I’ve been interested in ‘virtual water’ or the water footprint embedded in the goods and services we consume based on how much water they consume to be produced wherever they have originated from in the world. I’ve previously co-written ‘virtual water’ materials on sustainability for engineers courses at the University of Manchester. I’ve also heard Stockholm Water Prize winner Prof. Tony Allan give a guest lecture here on his virtual water concept. I recall he said then that people giving up or eating less red meat was one of the most powerful ways to reduce our water footprints; the water footprint of rearing cows for beef products is simply that high.

Cowspiracy is not a perfect documentary or a fully satisfying watch. It has a bit of a ‘straw man’ opening and set-up for the film, with the idea that NGOs working on global sustainability issues conspire deliberately not to tackle the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture, and instead target less controversial, more incremental transitions in say, personal water use patterns, personal waste recycling, personal transportation. Those who do tackle animal agriculture end up sued, ostracised and/or dead, Cowspiracy would have you believe. This seems a little hard to swallow but by the end of the film I did find myself quite won over and it is definitely worth a watch. Even if the NGOs in the film are not deliberately avoiding animal agriculture issues, their strategies towards it do appear to be suspect and I think there’s every reason for a prominent, global NGO to tackle these issues head on, and take a more radical ‘transition’ stance.

There’s a resource website to accompany the film and even if you don’t have the time or access to watch the documentary, it’s worth a peek. The 2009 Worldwatch Livestock and Climate Change report cited in the film is interesting – and claims that ‘livestock and their byproducts account for … 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions‘. Beyond that source the Cowspiracy infographic is a revealing summary of the film’s main points:

Photo: Cowspiracy inforgraphic. Source:

Photo: Time to go vegan! The Cowspiracy documentary resource website infographic. Source:

In a nutshell Cowspiracy claims that eating less or no meat locally would have a dramatic effect on currently unsustainable water and carbon footprints globally if enough people chose to do so. It seems like a fair point to me.

Overall the more material like this comes to my attention, the more I think a career in alternative agriculture might be a better use of my time than some of the things I currently do! (I also heard about the very low water use and flexible growing geometry characteristics of aeroponics for the first time recently due to some student work I was assessing; that sounds very promising.) Just as with our advocacy here for more radical innovation inside the water sector itself, more radical technology transitions that actively involve all of us outside of it too need a more prominent place, to lead us to a better world for both now and the future.

Duncan Thomas

California, crypto and carbon

The past few months have been rather occupied with a new addition to our family so you’ll forgive me but I’m going to catch up a bit here by combining a few posts into one.

California drought cont’d: P.I. evidence to accuse ‘Magnum P.I.’

Photo: Tom Selleck. Source: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo: Tom Selleck. Source: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Following on from my recent post on dipping into the California water drought I was bemused to see a 9 July 2015 BBC news story about actor Tom Selleck accused by the Calleguas Municipal Water DistrictVentura County ‘of stealing water for his [60-acre avocado] ranch in parched California by raiding a public hydrant‘.

A day earlier The Daily Mail had stated that Selleck and his wife were ‘accused of dispatching a white truck to a neighboring valley at least 12 times since 2013 to retrieve gallons of precious water, which is in short supply during the historic drought … even after they were issued with a cease-and-desist notice‘ and that ‘the Sellecks continued to swipe tankloads from Thousand Oaks to bring back to Hidden Valley in Westlake Village‘.

Surprisingly the Mail seemingly did not pick up the irony that the former Magnum P.I. star was being asked to pay ‘$21,685.55 to cover the cost of their [Calleguas’] private investigator, plus legal costs and an injunction‘! The P.I. to ‘catch’ ‘Magnum P.I.’ had been brought in after ‘Ventura County Sheriff’s Department also investigated and was unable to establish a crime occurred‘ according to the BBC’s story.

Typically, reports from 10 July 2015 onwards that Selleck had reached an agreement over the matter were not given the same ‘headline’ treatment as were the original accusations. A few days later (16 July 2015) the at first confidential details of that agreement were revealed: Selleck would pay back the full amount after a ‘3-0 vote, taken in a closed session, was held [by Calleguas Municipal Water District] with two board members absent‘ to accept this reparative action.

Throughout the reporting there were multiple references to the irony of Selleck having said of avocadoes, back in People magazine in 2012, that ‘I don’t eat ’em … Honestly, they make me gag. But it’s just as well. I’ll sell my portion.’

(This story sitting squarely in the ‘entertainment’ section for most news outlets also meant being ‘treated’ to some glitzy details about the 70-year old actor’s nearly 90-year old ranch that he’d apparently bought ‘in the late 1980s‘ and had been ‘previously owned by Dean Martin‘ before Selleck renovated it by ‘installing a seven-car garage, helicopter pad, putting green, tennis and volleyball courts and a playhouse for his daughter … with running water and electricity‘!)

Crypto outbreak: Boil water notices in Lancashire, England

On the less ostentatious side of the water news United Utilities made the BBC headlines last week (7 August 2015) after their ‘[r]outine tests … found traces of cryptosporidium at Franklaw water treatment works outside Preston‘ following which UU ‘used BBC Radio Lancashire, automated phone and text messages, social media, and even leaflet drops to warn its customers‘ spread across ~300,000 households in the area to boil their drinking water. The BBC/UU map of the affected area is shown below:

Photo: Lancashire area affected by the August 2015 UU crypto outbreak. Source: UU/BBC.

Photo: Lancashire area affected by the August 2015 UU crypto outbreak. Source: UU/BBC.

Yesterday the boiled water notice was still in force according to UU’s site, which confirmed that there were still traces of crypto ‘throughout the 2,500 miles of pipework in the affected area‘, and noted that UU’s actions were being coordinated with the Drinking Water Inspectorate and Public Health England. UU also explained that:

‘Franklaw water treatment works is now continuing to put its usual high quality water in to the local supply. As this clean water is entering the network, we are also continuing our work to clear every trace of the bug from the extensive network that serves the area. This network is around 2,500 miles in length and includes several storage reservoirs holding 500 million litres of water, so it takes time to refresh this huge amount.’

As picked up by the BBC, UU has committed to compensating its affected customers:

‘We will be compensating all homes and businesses who have been affected by the boil water advice notice, and once this advice is lifted, we will be contacting you. We’re looking at how we can make the compensation payments as easy as possible for all of our customers. Compensation for businesses will be looked at on a case by case basis.’

Crypto was a big issue for UU back when I was last talking in-depth with their staff around 2000, during my PhD research. Some technical people were advocating greater use of membrane filtration, to reduce the possibility of any outbreak in the first place. The alternative, or parallel approach was for better monitoring of crypto – i.e. more frequent tests and/or development of quicker diagnostic approaches to get a faster turnaround on samples. Quicker confirmation that you have crypto in your water samples of course is rather an after-the-horse-has-bolted approach. I do wonder what eventually happened… and its bearing on the current outbreak? (Note to self to check with Roger ASAP.)

Here’s hoping the situation improves soon and that the promised compensation satisfies all those unfortunately affected.

Carbon emission curiosities

A third matter that tied me up a little these past few weeks was looking at the carbon emissions of the UK water industry. Back in 2009 I posted about this topic here. I haven’t really revisited it – other than in our MOOC last year where I was mainly concerned about the general direction of travel based on projections in the 2010 Cave/Severn Trent Changing Course report, and some implications of the 2010/11 annual energy use of the sector (a staggering ~9,016 GWh!) as reported in the (now defunct?) Water UK Sustainability Indicators series.

Trying to find out more current and comprehensive details led me on to two useful reports, in particular. First, was the July 2010 Playing Our Part report from Ofwat. The framing here is the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. Ofwat estimates the UK water industry is responsible for about 1.1% of UK emissions (that probably being equated to ~5.01 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010/11 according to the above Water UK data). This apparently further breaks down into:

  • 0.7% from operational emissions (‘made directly or indirectly by the company in the day-to-day business of delivering drinking water and removing wastewater. For example, emissions resulting from burning diesel or purchasing electricity to pump water around a company’s distribution network‘); and
  • 0.4% from so-called ’embedded’ emissions (‘from the materials and activities related to the construction of the infrastructure companies need to deliver services, such as building a treatment works‘).

The Ofwat report also considers ‘other greenhouse gas emissions that the companies can influence but do not manage‘ like ‘emissions that arise in their supply chains or from the way that consumers use services‘ including ‘from a manufacturer producing the chemicals used in water treatment‘ and ‘as a result of consumers heating water in the home‘ (this latter domestic heating chunk I’ve seen fairly widely quoted as representing a further 4-5% of UK carbon emissions, about 24 MtCO2e).

There seems to have been a bit of a barren period following this Ofwat report – perhaps linked to the 2010 UK Coalition Government’s priority set – then in 2013 a very useful CIWEM report came out called A Blueprint For Carbon Emissions Reduction In The UK Water Industry. This built on the Ofwat work, further distinguishing and discussing various direct and indirect, regulatory and non-regulatory scope, operational and embedded carbon, and non-carbon emissions matters. (In it there’s a 2006/07 example for Anglian Water that – if my sums and understanding are correct – seems to suggest Anglian’s indirect emissions may be ~10 times higher than its direct ones, which is rather worrying!)

The CIWEM report also draws upon work by Professor Charles Ainger to show a desired trajectory for UK water industry carbon emission reductions, with a 3-4% a year total reduction needed to meet the Climate Change Act’s target for 2050:

Photo: Illustrated carbon emission reductions strategy for the UK water industry. Source: CIWEM 2013, p.36, after work by Charles Ainger.

Photo: Illustrated carbon emission reductions strategy for the UK water industry. Source: CIWEM 2013, p.36, after work by Prof. Charles Ainger.

UKWIR has also been active in looking at carbon, with a programme of work seemingly since 2004 on handbooks for operational and embodied carbon, and non-carbon emissions accounting. One particularly chilling point stressed in UKWIR research from 2009 though is that at that point so-called ’emission factors’ (EFs):

associated with methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from wastewater and sludge management dominate the overall uncertainty and true values might be up to 3 times higher or lower than the estimate.

In other words at that point there was significant accounting uncertainty about non-carbon emissions from the UK water industry (setting aside for a moment various broader concerns about the possible impact of these emissions on the climate system). Hopefully UKWIR’s ongoing programme has by now reduced this uncertainty somewhat…

Finally, there’s an upcoming WWT conference on water industry energy and carbon management next month that will hopefully keep these threads of interest and activity alive. Interestingly, the conference blurb states, ‘The UK water industry is a large consumer of energy and is responsible for 3% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions‘. So that’s either a misprint or else the sector’s emissions profile has trebled in the past three years…?

So that’s my recap and wrap-up on some water happenings of the past few months. Hopefully things will settle a bit in the coming weeks and I’ll be able to get back to my usual posting rhythm… Thanks for reading and stay posted!

Duncan Thomas

Heatwave? Check the drains!

With a heatwave forecast for today and tomorrow across much of the UK, being the kind of water person I am, my first thought was not to plan a barbecue but rather to check our drains!

Why so? Well, our sewers here are a kind of condominial design. Being sited at the end of a cul-de-sac, we’ve got four houses in one direction ‘feeding’ into the pipes under our property, plus another nine from another direction. Instead of each house feeding out to the mains sewer, shorter lengths of sewer connect each house, along a line, eventually to ours. (It’s not strictly condominial, in that we don’t have a community agreement about ownership and/or maintenance of the pipes; fortunately that’s taken care of by the water utility after the private sewers transfer back in 2011, not long after we first moved in.)

13 households is a lot of users and a lot of sewer pipe potentially to get blocked and, if the temperatures are high enough for a long period, and there’s perhaps lower flow too, to create some unpleasantness that I’d rather avoid! So before things heat up I took a quick look under the covers at our surprisingly deep underground pipework:

Photo: Shot of our drains, showing clear flowing channels deep below.

Photo: Shot of our drains, thankfully now showing clear flowing channels deep below.

Photo: It's difficult to capture how far the drains go down, but it's at least 2-3 metres!

Photo: It’s difficult to capture just how far the drains go down, but it’s at least 2-3 metres.

These are ‘after’ shots, once I’d jetted a handful (ew!) of ‘obstructions’ in the ‘system’ away with some well-targeted watering-can shots using our stored rainwater. I can report there was evidence of grease, fat, toilet paper, baby wipes, large ‘deposits’ that I’d rather not name here, and even a few large pieces of toilet roll cardboard (how did they get there, I wonder?).

All seems well now,there are no arising offensive smells or ’emissions’, and I’m glad I did this little bit of maintenance. At the same time I’m aware I’m a bit paranoid on this issue because (i) I viewed – and realised the implications of – the drain plans before we bought this house and (ii) because of my line of work!

Most people don’t check or maintain their drains and sadly the first thing they tend to notice is sewage bubbling into their house or garden that has to be addressed by their water utility, as the BBC’s Watermen: A Dirty Business amply demonstrated when it aired last year. I can’t imagine it’s realistic – without some serious remote monitoring innovations – for water utilities to proactively preempt these kinds of blockages, so it would be good to see some education and support for homeowners and residents in keeping their pipework – especially if, as is typically the case now, it flows on to others’ – in good, working order…

Duncan Thomas

Dipping into the California drought

A few months back I presented with a colleague about motivations for university academics to engage with ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs). This was at the Coursera Partners Conference in Newport Beach, California (Coursera is the platform we worked with to share our water and sanitation MOOC at the University of Manchester) and this was their annual event for instructors, media teams, instructional designers and course administrators to meet and share insights with each other. It was also where Coursera presented some new platform features, mainly helping with their apparently desired transition to more courses being available at any time, ‘on demand’ to learners all around the world.

Photo: Presenting on motivations for academics to engage with MOOCs, Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.

Photo: Presenting at the Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.

I found the event and setting very inspiring. By its very nature it was a magnet for some fascinating, passionate people – academics committed to ‘universal access to the world’s best education’ at low or no cost – and innovators in instructional design, course delivery, crowdsourced ‘citizen science’ and many were thought leaders in their fields. It was the largest, most concentrated gathering of creative, energetic and optimistic academics I’ve ever attended.

Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.

Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.

For my panel I shared the floor with several ‘star’, early-adopter, near-evangelist MOOC instructors, including the legendary ‘Dr Chuck‘ (Charles Severance) who’s delivered software/programming courses on Coursera since it launched, and even has tattoos of each of the platforms he’s on!

Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Dr Chuck.

Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Charles Severance (a.k.a. Dr Chuck). Source: Coursera.

Photo: Dr Chuck's platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.

Photo: Dr Chuck’s platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.

The whole event was bursting with a ‘can do’ attitude and outlook. I haven’t re-adjusted since returning to the UK. (A close friend who spent much time in California captured how I feel by likening returning from California’s disposition and climate back to the UK as being like ‘swimming through treacle’!)

Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.

Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.

I’ve spent many years researching and teaching sustainability issues. I thought I’d positively loathe Los Angeles and its infamous urban sprawl. I also now drive an electric car so felt even more alert to be headed to the ‘car city’, expecting smog and over-the-top consumer culture… The reality was anything but. I was positively entranced by the beauty of the place and approachability of the people, and can’t wait to go back.

Beyond all the palm trees, blue skies, expansive Pacific ocean vistas, immaculately manicured verges, positive people and shining facades though are the looming contradictions between population, climate and water resources in California. Other than a brief mention in an opening address, no one I met or heard speak at the Coursera conference mentioned the state’s daily-worsening drought conditions…

Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.

Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.

The collection of videos below show the dramatic challenges for water resources for the ecosystem, the landscape and amenities; show celebrities being ‘drought shamed’ for their profligate water use; and discuss conflicts between agricultural, industrial and domestic water users that new policy efforts are trying to mitigate…

The story below about wealthy residents in Montecito bringing in truckloads of water in the dead of night – ostensibly oblivious to the socio-environmental situation around them – really struck me the most though; I wonder if these residents next visit nearby Butterfly Beach and try to hold back the tide…?

Voluntary, grant-supported replacement of water-thirsty grass lawns with sparser, drought-tolerant shrubs is one positive response to the drought in California, as seen in this National Geographic clip:

However it’s worrying to see a lack of awareness of the sky-high cost of building long pipelines across the country to try to address the drought. Actor William Shatner has been in the news promoting this idea, a costly approach with which China and Australia have also toyed in recent years:

What’s certain is that the coming year will be a challenging and revealing time for water policy in this part of the world, if indeed California has only ‘a year’ of water left as these sources above seem to suggest…

Duncan Thomas

Rewarding realistic water and sanitation in games?

We’re gearing up again for the next part of our ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC). It’ll be Part 2 of our Water Supply and Sanitation Policy course, this time looking at which policy interventions have worked, having covered baseline water and sanitation conditions in Part 1. One of things that has come up again is working out exactly how Dale and I should talk about sanitation, in particular; it remains one of those things not really touched upon in polite conversation.

Generally it’s rare that we see water and sanitation talked about much more broadly, let alone realistically depicted, in much of our popular culture too. This point even takes us right back to one of our first gripes here at Waterstink, on how ‘period dramas’ often omit the harrowing sanitation conditions of their times.

This reflection back got me thinking further; these days games are a widespread and incredibly lucrative part of popular culture… so how do they represent water and sanitation conditions? Do they do it well? Or like costume dramas, do they omit or overly romanticise things?

Gaming is now a massive global industry with tens of billions of US Dollars annual revenue, and has eclipsed film industry in terms of economic scale (in the UK, in the US, and globally). Hollywood actors do voiceovers (LOTS of them!), cameos or full-blown roles for them. The biggest games sell millions of copies. In games it’s very common nowadays to interact with astonishingly detailed and/or realistic renderings of all kinds of past, current and future day settings. For example here’s a fairly recent take on an 18th century Caribbean environment from the game, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag:

Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin's Creed Black Flag.

Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag.

Pretty, isn’t it? And it’s got water in it too! But do games ever go further beyond this kind of aesthetic use of water, as a kind of attractive backdrop? Do we ever get to see more detail about these aspects that are basic to human survival? Are water and sanitation integrated into the working design of all the dynamic, high resolution detail that has become so common in the games we might play these days?

From my limited experience, I’ve found that typically the character you play – in most genres of games where you can interact with an environment – is capable of doing many things. You can walk, run, crouch or crawl, jump, shoot or hit stuff, and sometimes you might eat… or even drink (albeit to regain ‘health’)… but very rarely in a game do you ever go to the toilet. In fact you might even struggle to find a toilet depicted in your specific game environment.

Well, what does that matter? Should we change this status quo? Could we make water and sanitation more a talking point through this immensely popular medium?

With the scale and complexity of global challenges around water and sanitation that we all face, I think we should. Along that line of reasoning, as a bit of a diversion from ‘normal’ posts here at Waterstink, I’m going to imagine there are awards for realistic water and sanitation in games, and look at just a few recent, more or less high-profile games that I think deserve special mentions in this regard. So let’s start with the water-and-sanitation-realistic-depiction-award for…

Best rural water and sanitation in a game

Not in the vanguard, but doing reasonably well here is the quasi-realistic, Himalayan-y, rural-y setting of popular, cross-platform bestseller Far Cry 4 (with 7 million sales as of December 2014, and a 85/100 score on Metacritic). Here and there Far Cry 4 does depict some examples of rural drinking water infrastructure:

Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.

Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.

This choice of piped water infrastructure is admirably quite realistic for the game’s mountainous setting. You could image a gravity-fed, piped water system from mountain springs actually being used here. In fact it looks very similar to a system that Dale showed in-class to our students last week at the University of Manchester, taken some a few years ago, in Bolivia:

Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.

Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.

Far Cry doesn’t do quite so well with sanitation facilities though. The most you’ll see is some vague ‘huts’, sometimes accompanied with the sound of flies, that you can’t enter, and that are probably toilets. All in all they don’t really reveal anything at all about what are probably very basic sanitation conditions in this (stylised) part of the world:

Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.

Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.

Whatever they might look like inside, most likely these huts are not examples of improved sanitation facilities, such as a ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrine.

Best mega-city water and sanitation in a game

Now we move to modern day Hong Kong depicted in the remastered, Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition. Here there are toilets and sinks that you can use (albeit not pictured here in use for the sake of good taste, but the mere fact that you can use them causes my little one endless amusement – and led to much in-game handwashing afterwards for good practice!):

Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.

Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.

Good as this is, interactive toilets and sinks are about it though for Sleeping Dogs; no large-scale water or sanitation infrastructure in the actual city of Hong Kong seems to be shown.

Runner-up award: Sewers are not really for that kind of thing!

Sewers, oddly, have been a bit of a mainstay – almost obsession – for games for many years now. They are a popular game environment design choice in order to shortcut you from one game area to another, sometimes as subterranean living spaces for freakish characters, or simply a stealthy way to sneak you into some secure location. Sadly they are often shown unrealistically. Often they are laws-of-physics-defyingly large, like in the game Deadlight:

Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.

Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.

Let’s contrast this with a Thames Water picture of a typical sewer:

Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.

Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.

Now I know some storm drains and sewers are a bit larger than this one shown, but still Deadlight’s liberty with structures doesn’t exactly educate and inform younger people about the scale and extent of our underground sanitation infrastructure, does it?!?

An example of a gaming depiction of sewers as labyrinthian sneaking and traversal mechanisms is found in fungal-zombie, post-apocalyptic, character- and story-driven, bestseller The Last of Us (about 8 million copies sold up to 2014). Here are some shots of this part of the game in action:

Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).

Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).

Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head... he will need to in a few moments when he sees the size of the sewer structures just in front of him!

Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head… he will be doing a lot more of that in a few moments when he sees the remarkable size of the sewer structures in front of him!

Photo: Some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.

Photo: Joel then enters some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.

Both The Last Of Us and Deadlight feature the ‘eccentric’ (to say the least!) character(s) using sewers/storm drains as places to live. Here’s an example note left behind by one such sewer ‘resident’ in The Last Of Us:

Photo: Even given there's been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt Ish is enjoying the sewers THAT much!

Photo: Even given there’s been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt incidental game character, Ish will be enjoying his life much as a ‘mole-man’ in these sewers!

Best representation of water and sanitation in a game

The best-picture ‘award’, if there were such a thing, for overall ‘most realistic representation of water and sanitation issues in a video game’ (technically, sub-category ‘urban’) would undoubtedly go to epic, sweeping, open-world, grime-n’-crime ‘simulator’ Grand Theft Auto V. It’s oddly heartening for me to find that probably the biggest selling games of all time (1 billion USD in sales in its first three days45 million copies distributed to retailers so far) takes a comprehensive view of (urban) water and sanitation infrastructure. Even more than that, it hints at some global water challenge issues here and there.

First of all, there are toilets in GTA V:

Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it's there...

Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it’s there…

There are also reservoirs and dams:

Photo: A reservoir in the game, with valve tower to the right and some possible recreational infrastructure to the left. In the background is the 'Vinewood' sign - GTA's take on Hollywood!

Photo: An in-game reservoir; valve tower to the right and some recreational platform to the left. Just visible in the background is the game’s ‘Vinewood’ sign – that’s GTA’s take on Hollywood…

Photo: A reservoir in GTA V.

Photo: Another large reservoir depicted in GTA V.

Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.

Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.

Some areas of GTA seem to indicate the raw water supply is under stress, such as in the drying up waterways leading away from the above dam:

Photo: Water flow drying up in GTA V; dam in the background.

Photo: Water flow seemingly drying up in GTA V; dam shown in the background. I get a sense here that the artistic design is suggesting that the river flow here may have been far more substantial in the past…

If you look you’ll also find rubbish discarded around the above river bed (presumably a take on the Los Angeles River) hinting at pollution issues.

Most impressive of all – and now I say this realising that you may find the actual content and gameplay of the whole GTA series quite objectionable – there’s a large wastewater treatment plant in-game that you can fully walk around and explore:

Photo: Wastewater treatment works in GTA V.

Photo: A wastewater treatment plant in GTA V.

Photo: You can climb up and dive right in some of the wastewater assets... not that you'd want to!

Photo: You can even climb up and dive right into these wastewater treatment assets… not that you’d want to!

Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.

Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.

The city storm drain system is also referenced directly in GTA’s stylised take on LA, ‘Los Santos’:

Photo: GTA's stylisation of the Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.

Photo: GTA’s stylisation of the canalised Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.

Photo: More iconic landmarks re-imagined in GTA's stylised 'Los Santos'.

Photo: More iconic scenery along the Los Angeles River as re-imagined in GTA’s stylised city of ‘Los Santos’.

Photo: Some social commentary in GTA too around this infrastructure...

Photo: Some scope for social commentary in GTA around this area too…

Frankly this level of attention to the actual workings of a city, and to bring out of the shadows the typically flush-and-forget, out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind aspects of urban life, is really commendable. What your average gamer thinks of these inclusions in GTA’s virtual take on Los Angeles, I’m not sure. But I think there’s potential here for participatory discussion and education about planning water and sanitation infrastructure, and about it and we need to adapt to and mitigate climate change factors (I could even see this kind of gamification of water and sanitation participatory planning, of sorts, as a prime candidate for MOOC-related materials!).

Overall I’m happy that gaming, as big and popular as it now is, does sometimes show water and sanitation infrastructure. The level of representation at the moment is a start only, of course. Many people may also shrug and ignore these admirably detailed efforts. But for me I think games have come a long way – and even show a positive way forward of sorts – by not overtly hiding and explicitly overlooking these assets that after all are so vital to our shared life and future together on this planet.

Duncan Thomas

Thames Water, Network Rail argue over Farringdon flooding

From time to time I often feel the urge to comment on rail matters. There are often lots of overlapping issues with the large network infrastructure of the water and sanitation sector, policy, regulation etc. etc.

In a fairly dense city like London, where the networks of both utility services criss-cross and interact with each other to a very high degree, the overlap is quite noticeable. One example of this is playing out in the UK media right now. The BBC has reported it as follows:

  • 23 January – a Thames Water water main burst, flooding a tunnel connecting St Pancras International and Farringdon train stations in London, making it impassable for many trains;
  • 26 January – Thameslink Bedford-to-Brighton rail line operator says it is unable to run any trains in London until the problem is fixed; five of its trains are damaged by flood water;
  • 29 January – Network Rail says it will issue Thames Water with a ‘multi-billion pound’ bill, after 1,000 cancelled trains and 133 hours of delays, having ‘exhausted’ its patience with Thames Water;
  • 29/30 January – Thames Water and Network Rail begin what the BBC described as ‘tit-for-tat corporate wrangling over whose fault the disruption is and whose responsibility the flooded tunnel was’. Apparently flood water from the original burst mains, and subsequently identified further leaks, was unable to drain away due to poorly maintained drains for which Network Rail is responsible;
  • 30 January – Thameslink service in London resume, after almost a week of disruption to trains.

In pictures, here’s the flooded tunnel:

Photo: Flooded Clerkenwell tunnel between St Pancras and Farringdon, London. Source: BBC (via Govia).

And here’s the blocked Network Rail drains that Thames Water claim exacerbated problems, and have apparently been an identified issue since as early as 2007:

Photo: Blocked drainage apparently under Network Rail’s responsibility. Source: Thames Water.

None of this wrangling will impress passengers affected by the delays, I imagine! It’s also symptomatic of the fragmented responsibilities and accountability for planning, investments and maintenance across different utility sectors. This is permitted by the scattered ownership and operation of these two privatised utility sectors and their regulatory arrangements.

The ideal outcome here would be some requirements for cooperative, long-term actions across these (and other related) utilities and their regulatory frameworks. The media so far doesn’t seem to have stressed this vital aspect though…

Duncan Thomas

Irish Water is in the news again

Irish Water has been in today’s news again after being in and out of the headlines these past few months probably a lot more than it would have liked.

The ‘semi-state’ company has remained controversial since its incorporation in mid-2013 and particularly since its phased take-over during 2014 of responsibility for 34 local authorities’ provision of water and wastewater services, and especially its 1 October step to introduce direct charging for water accompanying with water metered installation – a move widely understood as making people pay twice for their water (i.e. generation taxation before -> tax plus direct charges after).

On its website Irish Water justifies itself as follows:

‘Water is one of our most valuable resources. It has shaped our landscape, dictated the location of our towns and cities, protected our health, and fuelled our economic development. However, clean water is expensive to both produce and manage. … Our current funding model is simply not sustainable. Despite the good work of the Local Authorities, much greater investment nationally is needed to address weaknesses in the water system, including high leakage rates, varying quality standards, and disruptions to supply.’

It also stresses Ireland’s comparative context:

‘Ireland is currently the only country in the OECD that does not have domestic water charges.’

There is no mention though of direct water charging being part of the Irish government’s deficit reduction actions after an international bailout following the global 2007/2008 economic crisis.

I must say the first thing that sprung to my mind after hearing all these Irish water news stories was that aspects of this case are strikingly similar to a challenge Prof. Dale Whittington poses to our University of Manchester students (in our class on water and sanitation planning and policy each year). There we take the Egyptian water tariff reform situation. This has similar features of (i) historical under-investment, (ii) historically low and/or not very transparent water charging, and (iii) pressure from international financial institutions. We ask our students to plan a multi-stakeholder communication programme for pricing reform. Generally they come to appreciate it’s a challenging task, even more so in a politically turbulent setting like Egypt!

But even given how complex this task is, it’s difficult to imagine getting things as wrong as they seem to have gone in the Irish case. Today’s news coverage in the Irish Independent is indeed in this vein, quoting Irish Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe as saying:

‘Irish Water bosses failed to send “warning signals” to the Government that could have prevented the fiasco which has engulfed the company …’

‘… the management of Irish Water took on way too much and should have been giving warning signals to the Government earlier. That didn’t happen.’

‘The government wasn’t given warning signals earlier of the pressure areas.’

Revelations that over 50 million Euro was spent by Irish Water on consultants in 2013 started 2014 badly, so any reform communication strategy – if indeed there was a ‘strategy’ at all – was on shaky ground to begin with. It’s also clear your communication ‘strategy’ needs a serious change of course when in addition to mass protests (on 10 December, and earlier) you find musician Sinead O’Connor blogging about Irish Water charges and Russell Brand making Irish water-related Trews videos:

Irish Water has now capped water charges (full details are here) to attempt to address concerns expressed in recent months. It may now hope that troubling headlines are behind it as 2014 closes. Ireland’s historical legacy of general taxation will be difficult to overcome though, if other water reform cases around the world are any guide. There’s also the additional complexity to the Irish case to address – ‘group water schemes’ where rural water users installed their own granted-aid water systems from the 1960s onwards.

I imagine water pricing in Ireland is going to remain a hot topic for some time to come, so Irish Water may have to brace itself for more tough times ahead in 2015.

Duncan Thomas