Northern Ireland water crisis

Firstly, from Duncan, we’d like to wish a Happy New Year – and new decade – to all our readers, from us both here at Waterstink! And now, over to Roger for some water-related news about Northern Ireland…

A BBC presenter on Radio 4’s You and Yours show yesterday, New Year’s Eve, started his introduction by saying that water is something we take for granted in the UK. We turn on the tap and we expect water that’s drinking quality – regardless of however much we want to come flowing out. Not however in Northern Ireland at present. There, up to 80,000 people have recently seen some form of disruption to their supplies. The problems, for some, have lasted 11 days or so – right from when the thaw first started. This service outage is sadly expected to continue into next week.

Public health concerns arising from the lack of water for personal hygiene are already being raised and comparisons are being made to conditions in ‘third world’ countries. Clearly we are all very saddened and concerned for the people affected. Many people have understandably been angry and have expressed their feelings very publicly.

Northern Ireland Water, the body responsible for water supply and sewage removal, is still a publicly-owned company. Together with Scottish Water – who incidentally cover the area with the next worse number of people cut off after the thaw – these are the UK’s last publicly-owned water providers. They were not part of the England and Wales privatisation over twenty years ago. Predictably then, this has lead to comparisons being made between the two approaches – public and private. It has also been pointed out that the infrastructure in Northern Ireland has not enjoyed the considerable investment made by the privatised operators in England and Wales and – to some extent – even the same level of improvements that have been made of late in Scotland.

Although there is some truth in this kind of ‘investment argument’, as always, such an analysis is far too simplistic. For starters, certainly the magnitude of the problem appears also to be dependent on the weather patterns? After all, the two worst effected areas were in terms of temperature those that experienced the worst of the recent weather.

At the same time, the operators in England and Wales have not escaped problems or criticism. Just as an example, some customers of United Utilities in the North West of England have had their supplies cut off. UU says it is experiencing emergency calls at a rate nearly ten times what they would expect at this time of year. (Duncan tells me that Yorkshire Water has a recorded message with advice about the thaw immediately after you dial in to them too, so clearly the North East has not escaped these issues either.)

One of the UU incidents in particular drew my attention though. The water supply stopped in a part of East Manchester. A mains supply strung under a motorway bridge had burst. As far as I can tell, this mains supply must have been part of the oft-cited ‘massive’ renewal programme that UU has engaged in since privatisation. Still, clearly the solution adopted in this case was not fit-for-purpose. I imagine, from my experience, that there are numerous examples of similar investments all around the country. If our UK winters are going to get increasingly severe (and less predictable), one wonders how much of the refurbished infrastructure – which, as we’ve pointed out before, is usually the result of ‘lowest cost’ designs – will be able to stand up to increasing numbers of extreme weather events?

Certainly nobody relishes in these types of crisis. But, to improve resilience the UK has to accept that these situations will continue to occur – and even may become more common. Small steps are being taken of course – e.g. some Defra-sponsored work in 2010, which included a specific report on adapting ‘energy, water and transport infrastructure’ to climate change impacts.

Nevertheless, reports and action are two different things. In the field of action – or rather inaction – much of the UK water industry sadly seems to just sit back complacently with an attitude of ‘we have spent the capital and therefore the problems cannot happen here.’ And yet these infrastructures are complex and prone to failure. They require constant maintenance and management. (E.g. when a pipe has frozen, of course the operators have some valuable time to do something it, before any thaw and leakage problems can occur.)

Overall we all rely on these pipes, and so forth, when they work – as indeed they do, most of the time – so much so that we often forget all about them. Reliance and confidence are fine. Overconfidence to the point of complacency is quite another!

Update (15/11/2016): Featured image added from this source.

Roger Ford


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