Squatty Potty revisited… literally!

A quick post while I’m on the road…  Some time ago I posted up about a look-away-now-if-you-don’t-want-to-be-mentally-scarred-for-eternity(-or-perhaps-you-really-like-unicorns-and-would-be-unable-to-ever-look-at-them-the-same-way) type invention – the Squatty Potty.

Little did I ever imagine that I’d one day see one… Let alone perch on one… And yet, voila:

Photo: Me on a Squatty Potty. Source: Picture by Scot Corrie.

Photo: On a Squatty Potty. Source: Picture by Scot Corrie.

They’re readily available off-the-shelf in some parts of the world, it seems! And that’s all for now… More soon.

Duncan Thomas

Calderdale floods – impact, response and resilience update

Eight months ago serious flooding affected our part of the North of England – and much of the UK. I blogged about it after it happened. Homes and businesses were inundated, roads were cut off and properties lost or badly damaged.

At the time I asked whether the UK deserves a ‘F’ for flooding… so I have been watching some of the recovery efforts. For instance roads around us have only just now been repaired; some are still under restricted flow as banks and foundations are shored up in areas where highways were practically washed away, in some cases into nearby watercourses.

Calderdale Council recently produced three infographics to capture something of the scale and process of the flood itself and about recovery efforts. I’m now sharing these here, with each picture linked back to the source for easy reference. The first covers the flood impacts:

Photo: Calderdale Council's infographic about the 2015 Boxing Day floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

Photo: Calderdale Council’s infographic about the 2015 Boxing Day floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

Multi-million pound loses for local businesses and infrastructure are clear, and the impact on wastewater utility services is also stressed – 10 sewage pumping stations were reportedly affected (we’ve also suffered major water outages earlier this year, in what may or may not be flood-related repairs and maintenance).

The next infographic summarizes recovery aspects:

Photo: Calderdale Council's infographic on the recovery effort from the 2015 Boxing Day floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

Photo: Calderdale Council’s infographic on the recovery effort from the 2015 Boxing Day floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

Millions of pounds have been pledged for the recovery effort and, interestingly, there have been ‘[n]o flood water related illnesses reported’ (although attribution of specific illness incidents to the floods would of course be challenging).

Finally, taking a longer-term view Calderdale Council has also visualized the ‘resilience’ measures following on from the floods, aiming to ensure the same impacts don’t occur again:

Photo: Calderdale Council's infographic on resilience activities since the 2015 Boxing Day Floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

Photo: Calderdale Council’s infographic on resilience activities since the 2015 Boxing Day Floods. Source: Calderdale Council.

More money has been pledged for infrastructure above and beyond the direct repairs in the second infographic. Capacity is also being built in technology and people, with a new radio network, volunteer networks, and community hubs.

I’m still following the Calderdale flood support Facebook group so I’m aware that these Council level – and in some parts national level – responses are unlikely to be seen as perfect or all-encompassing. There remains much to be done on national policies and practices around land and water resources management, as I’ve said before – and on climate change mitigation and adaptation policy and practice.

Overall I was happy to see Calderdale Council step-wise addressing the relative severity of the recent floods in this way, and showing some ‘best practice’ by not forgetting about the building resilience follow-on aspects. If you’re aware of similar communication efforts by other local authorities in the UK – or elsewhere – do let us know and we’ll post a link here too about them.

Duncan Thomas

Final MOOC filming: Dale interviews Prof. Stephen Littlechild

Late Friday, well into the evening, we finally wrapped all our water and sanitation MOOC filming. This brought to a close a production effort that has spanned three years, since we began recording for our Part 1 MOOC back in 2013.

I completed my part of our filming a month ago when I interviewed former Ofwat Chief Executive, Regina Finn. Now it was time for Dale to record his final material. He did so in style, by interviewing renowned international regulatory innovator, Professor Stephen Littlechild:

Photo: Professor Stephen Littlechild interviewing for our water and sanitation MOOC by Professor Dale Whittington at the University of Manchester.

Photo: Professor Stephen Littlechild interviewing for our water and sanitation MOOC by Professor Dale Whittington at the University of Manchester.

This interview had taken quite some time to schedule. When Dale arrived from the States the night before, he’d partially lost his voice, but he was nevertheless determined to seize this rare and long sought after opportunity.

Stephen and Dale had an interesting link. They were both supervised by late mathematical genius and – among other distinctions – co-developer of data envelopment analysis (DEA) Abraham Charnes.  Stephen and Dale discussed their memories of Abe Charnes in the interview, and the influence his approach to tackling real-world problems had had on their later careers.

Some of the other subjects Dale and Stephen discussed in detail were:

  • Prof. Littlechild’s role in the invention of RPI-X price cap economic regulation of utilities;
  • Non-price related tools and instruments for regulation, beyond RPI-X;
  • Tariff rebalancing and tariff design issues;
  • The possibilities for ‘light touch’ economic regulation of utilities in the UK and elsewhere in the world;
  • The evolution of utility regulation models, approaches and institutions since the 1980s;
  • Issues around the ‘cult of the individual’ in UK regulators and private utility firms;
  • Consumer forums and customer engagement for better utility business planning;
  • Differences and similarities between regulation of public sector utilities in Scotland and of privatized utilities in England and Wales in the UK;
  • Possibilities and problems around applying RPI-X to developing country contexts;
  • Issues around re-nationalizations of certain privatized utilities around the world;
  • The feasibility of alternative models for water and sanitation service delivery in the face of sustainability and climate change pressures; and
  • Prof. Littlechild’s advice to MOOC learners interested in getting into the field of utility regulation.

Filming took over two hours and it was truly fascinating to watch two deep intellectual thinkers delve into challenging issues around regulation of essential utilities.

Prof. Littlechild also shared many personal recollections and behind-the-scenes details about his regulatory involvements over the years. Many of these I’d never heard or seen in print before – in spite of my having read much of the epic 1,300-page, two volume set of ‘official history’ books by David Parker on the UK privatizations.

I think the final edited interview will not only have value for our MOOC learners but also constitutes invaluable oral history. I can’t wait for people to be able to watch the interview, and I’ll look into whether I can make parts or all of it available here on Waterstink at some point in the near future.

Overall it’s been a tremendous effort to reach finally this stage. And I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off several years of work on these MOOCs! Now comes the intensive final work of getting everything ready to launch later this year. Watch for news here, as I’ll put up the exact launch date as soon as it’s confirmed…

Duncan Thomas

Interviewing Regina Finn for the water MOOC

Last week I interviewed former Chief Executive of Ofwat, Regina Finn. This was my last filming for our upcoming Part 2 ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC) on the Coursera platform, launching later this year. (Part 2 currently has the not-altogether-snappy full holding title of Water Supply and Sanitation Policies in Developing Countries: Developing Effective Interventions.)


Photo: Interviewing Regina Finn in London, May 2015. Source: Picture by the University of Manchester media team (and kudos for how quickly they turned a university meeting room into a fully-fledged film studio too!).

I asked Regina 20+ questions about her time from 2006 to 2013, leading the England and Wales economic regulator for the privatized water sector, including:

  • What got her interested in regulating utilities in the first place;
  • What her main challenges were when she became the first Chief Executive of Ofwat, the surprises, her most difficult decision, and what she enjoyed the most;
  • The background to the reforms she led at Ofwat to implement a new regulatory framework with more emphasis on water customers, and to strip out unnecessary bureaucracy in the regulatory process;
  • Ofwat’s possible role in helping water customers to understand betterthe regulatory process, including more technical details like RPI-X price cap economic regulation, and how it differs from rate-of-return regulation;
  • Ofwat’s CAPEX and OPEX modelling procedures and how they changed over time;
  • Water company challenges to price determinations over the years;
  • What it was like being a woman leader in a male-dominated water sector;
  • What other countries and sectors might learn from her and Ofwat’s experiences in regulatory capacity building; and
  • Regina’s tips for people who’d like to pursue a future career in water regulation.

You’ll have to wait and take the actual MOOC to find out the answers… but suffice to say I was very impressed with Regina’s frank, informative and thought-provoking responses.

Interviewing Regina followed on from my final studio filming which, aptly enough, was also about the UK water sector’s regulation experience.


Photo: My last in-studio shooting for the water MOOC, on the UK’s water regulation experience. Source: Picture by the University of Manchester media team.

This involved talking about three things:

  • Professor Stephen Littlechild’s original ideas around RPI-X price cap economic regulation and why they were perhaps impossible to implement in a ‘pure’ form in the England and Wales privatized water sector;
  • The reality of economic regulation following the England and Wales water privatization in 1989, and how Ofwat and its approach changed over time; and
  • The interplay between regulation and possibilities for technical and other innovation in the water sector to address future challenges, like a changing climate.

These were some of the most challenging water-related materials I’ve ever written. My colleague for the MOOC, Prof. Dale Whittington, helped a great deal. We must have bounced draft auto cues for some of these videos back and forth more than a dozen times! We also made sure to include a worked example of RPI-X price cap regulation, as we were unable to find one we could refer people to, online (we may have missed one, but didn’t even find a worked example at PURC’s excellent Regulation Body of Knowledge on Infrastructure Regulation resource site).

There is now one last shoot, not with me in front of the camera thankfully (!), and the MOOC recording is all done. I’ll say more about this shoot once it has actually happened, fingers crossed, as it’s rather exciting!

After that there’s a whole load of copyright clearance, formatting of visual aids, quality control of the video materials, and building of the actual course pages still to do… The finishing line of more than two years of work, on-and-off, for our two water MOOC parts now is at least in sight though… and it’s been quite an experience overall, there’s no doubt!

Duncan Thomas

‘Unprecedented’ flooding?

A few weeks back, on 29 February 2016, there was an interesting BBC TV programme on called, ‘Flooding: Are You as Safe as You Think?‘ It focused mainly on Wales and took objection to the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe the recent Boxing Day 2015 floods.

Presenter Tim Rogers has covered UK flood events for over 30 years. He reported on the 2015 Carlisle floods, and reported there a decade earlier after the flooding in 2005. Both times the floods were called ‘unprecedented’.

The 2005 floods were also called a ‘once in a lifetime event’ that would not be allowed to happen again. After these floods, £38 million of defences were built, but sadly did not prevent all the flooding that happened in 2015. Tim Rogers was shown in the programme, stood on top on some of the flood defences built in Carlisle, following the 2005 floods.

I highly recommend the full programme; do go and watch it while it’s still available (note: may not be accessible outside the UK). In a nutshell though it argues much recent UK flooding is – far from being ‘unprecedented’ – quite precedented if you look for flooding records in the right places.

On this, in the programme Tim Rogers met with Professor Mark Macklin from Aberystwyth University. Prof. Macklin said current (Welsh) flood maps underestimated flood risks. Authorities in Wales reportedly rely primarily on datasets from river level monitoring gauges that go back only 55 years. This omits evidence of past flooding, which Prof. Macklin has inferred through geological research that traces flood events back over a period of 3,000 years or more.

Tim Rogers also visited a local library and found a newspaper article from 1879 in the Aberystwyth Observer, describing ‘a storm of unprecedented severity‘ over Aberystwyth. He highlighted this historical use again of the word ‘unprecedented’ whilst also finding a consistent paper trail, from the available newspaper archives, of ‘major flooding between 1840 and 1957‘ in the area. The programme claimed this evidence was not used for flood risk mapping by the relevant Welsh authority, Natural Resources Wales.

Overall I don’t think the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ is that scientific by policymakers and commentators on UK flooding. It’s more a sensitive, emotional term to be alert to likely flooding impacts on people and property, in my view. But any sloppy use of the term could be replaced by a more scientific, evidence-based view of how ‘precedented’ UK flooding events actually are, I believe this programme argued. This would be by developing more accurate flood maps that combine at least:

  • River level monitoring gauge data;
  • Data from geological research; and
  • Newspaper reports of historical flooding.

I recall from my previous research that the Local Climate Impacts Profile (LCLIP) approach for organisations, such as local authorities, to assess their climate-related risks, can include newspaper data. But I’m not sure whether the Environment Agency currently uses such data – or geological evidence – in its flood risk mapping.

Happy to update this post if anyone from the EA could let me know…?

Duncan Thomas

Action research… of sorts – no Yorkshire Water supply!

Picture the scene. I’m stood, this morning, tired (as always) and trying not to blink in front of some very bright studio lights, speaking into a 4k camera, about some possible ‘bad news’ outcomes of the England and Wales water privatization. (This is for our upcoming MOOC at work.)

I’m mentioning the bad publicity UK water companies received in the 1990s, with accusations of excessive ‘fat cat’ executive salary levels, and how public and media furore was tied to certain incidents for specific water companies.

One example I gave was Yorkshire Water, and the 1995 drought. Yorkshire got a right bashing at the time over this, of course. But in my video recording this morning, I was trying to make the contrasting ‘good news’ point that at least Yorkshire did manage to improve its water resources situation afterwards, in part by integrating its water supply infrastructures, among other positive developments.

During other MOOC video recordings this week, I was also putting the 1989 England and Wales water privatization into context. I recalled my childhood experiences, pre-privatization, that water supply interruptions, discolourations, and ‘boil water’ were a very regular occurrence – and that it’s easy to overlook the fact that these don’t happen so much any more in the UK.

I guess I was asking for this… but the irony then was, as I got back to my office in the afternoon today I found a message from my significant other that we had no water supply at home… My S.O. is currently breastfeeding, and needs to drink water regularly, so this is definitely ‘bad news’, sorry Yorkshire!

Fast forward a few hours, and I’m on a live chat with Yorkshire (updated 21/04/16: screenshot removed). It’s great they have this feature, as the amount of talking I have to do in my job is making me less and less keen on talking in other contexts these days. It’s also a way of getting very clear, understandable and immediate feedback. Still, Yorkshire’s response was rather vague, sadly. It mentioned a tanker would be used to try to restore our water but that there was no specific timescale for this at the time.

Kindly, after I requested it, Yorkshire may supply bottled water for my S.O. though… I’ll take a picture of that and edit it in here; if it happens! (update 21/04/16; this did actually happen, but a pallet of bottle water was dropped off too far away for us to reach at the time; no matter)

So… is this a kind of action research (or payback?!?) for someone who does water-related research and teaching? Certainly feels like it. Thick and heavy irony today.

Lastly, I also can’t quite get over the coincidence… water filming in the morning; water incident in the afternoon. Come to think of it, coincidentally I was actually reading a BBC news article about coincidences, just the other day!

But it turns out that we are pattern-seeking beings and my seeing coincidences everywhere like this is probably perfectly normal

Update (20:17, 03/03/16): No bottled water turned up. Still no water supply. Family can’t cook, wash  hands or bodies or dishes, drink, do laundry – and we have the hot water and heating off, in case our boiler objects to the lack of water supply (as we had some problems with it very recently, so I don’t want to risk it). No predicted timescale for a fix either! Very poor show, Yorkshire Water… (updated 21/04/16: screenshot removed)

Update (20:27, 03/03/16): And I’m using this ‘action research’ opportunity to check out the compensation policies here. Seems to depend on whether it’s a ‘strategic main’ or not. If it is, it can be off for 48 HOURS without compensation! Otherwise it’s 12 hours… then we get a measly £20 plus £10 for every further 12 hours… And the ‘live chat’ representative doesn’t know if this one is a ‘strategic main’ or not… But at least it seems the compensation would be AUTOMATICALLY applied to my account… <Sigh>

Update (22:27, 03/03/16): Water came back on, with very low pressure around 22:00. Chalk it up to a reminder that water underpins so many daily activities… Also just as the water came back on, a ‘flood alert’ text arrived on my phone; go figure!

Update (21/04/16): Live chat screenshots removed. Comment added that a pallet of bottled water was supplied nearby, albeit we were unable to reach it at the time. Nice that Yorkshire did that for local residents!

Duncan Thomas

A ‘can’t be unseen’ video ad for toilet squatting

I’m busy writing auto cues for my MOOC session on the UK water privatization experience, and teaching at work is in full swing… so it’s a short post this month. I’ve some interesting updates on our recent Cowspiracy and Boxing Day floods posts, but I’ll have to wait and get those up next month…

For now, here’s a bit of ‘can’t be seen’ video advert on a product touting the benefits of toilet squatting. I saw it when someone posted it up on social media. Like me, you mightn’t be able to get it out of your mind afterwards; warning, viewer discretion advised:

Some usual disclaimers too… other techniques and products for squatting are available. Squatting may not be right for you. Consult a doctor before squatting etc. etc.

Interestingly I recall Roger and I discussing this topic years back.  (Yes this is the usual direction of the conversation when we meet up; lunches with us are not for the squeamish!) It’s a fascinating, but not necessarily unsurprising, comment on path dependency/lock-in for sanitation technology that many of us, in industrialised countries, use a dominant toilet design that isn’t optimal when it comes to this issue… and then there’s its additional sustainability problems around potable water use for flushing of water-sealed toilets and so on.

OK, that’s all for now… until next month!

Duncan Thomas