It’s been a busy few weeks for water news! Floods hit most parts of the UK – just as drought concerns were raised for the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Prince Charles was delayed getting to flood-affected Hebden Bridge by water-logged roads (the town was in the process of re-flooding as he visited!). After much uproar, the Environment Agency promised quick decisions on new flood defences across routinely-affected parts of Calderdale.

Putting UK events into international perspective, severe floods in Southern Russia claimed over 150 lives and questions were asked about the adequacy of warnings. Back in the UK the Committee on Climate Change reported flood risks are set to increase over the next 20 years, and a Select Committee deplored the lack of urgency and ambition of the December 2011 Water White Paper – both grabbing headlines and leaving the long-awaited publication on 10 July of the Draft Water Bill rather out in the cold.

The last remaining hosepipe bans were lifted with many industry insiders probably hoping that will bring an end to a prolonged period of ‘epic fail’ of water company PR, albeit a little too late to stop ‘wettest drought ever’ practically gaining meme status. Meanwhile, Ofwat announced its preferred candidate, cross-sector/multi-utility heavyweight Jonson Cox, to replace later this year current Chair Philip Fletcher. Cox’s appointment was confirmed after he faced the Efra Select Committee. (Was his £10 million ‘fat cat’ golden handshake for leaving Anglian Water in 2010 mentioned? His UK Coal time commitments and potential conflicts of interest certainly were…)

Amidst all this I received a kind invitation to attend Future Water 2012, London. This turned out to be newsworthy more for its lack of new news than anything else but nevertheless I’ll report back a few highlights. (The many other developments will have to wait a few days…)

Pictured (L-R): Sonia Phippard, Defra; Ian Barker, Environment Agency; Alan Sutherland, Water Industry Commission for Scotland; Janet Wood, Utility Week

In a nutshell, and quoting someone sat next to me – who shall remain nameless – the vision expounded during Future Water was ‘pedestrian’. There were flashes of inspiration here and there but these quickly sank beneath a seemingly complacent, general advocacy for ‘evolutionary’ uptake of ideas and practices that, let’s face it, are already in current use in water or other sectors around the world. It was only Tony Kelly, MD of public sector Yarra Valley Water who set any kind of ‘future water’ bar at all, in my opinion, at the event.

Taken at face value, the Australian water sector seems light years ahead of the UK: integrated national planning for water, universal water metering, domestic customers informed about their current water use (including info about neighbours’ use patterns) and helped to save water, recent 40 percent reductions in per capita consumption levels, a three-part increasing block tariff to curb water demand that customers seem to support, a drop to single-figure leakage levels (now around eight percent), 100,000 homes soon to get dual-pipe/greywater systems, hundreds of millions of Australian dollars spent on water efficiency in the farming sector (with the savings shared with the farmers), and a state-wide water grid… Why aren’t these things on the cards for the UK? This isn’t even ‘future’ water: it’s current practice!

Tony Kelly explained long-term, crisis-level drought conditions gave the opportunity to get changes through in Australia, and to future-proof their water system for the next 20 years. The vision and steadfastness of the people involved I imagine no doubt helped – and having a public water system with national planning, rather than privatised monopolies allied to a cabal of territorial QUANGOs together struggling to coordinate in the best interests of citizens. Interestingly, Tony Kelly said it ‘seems incomprehensible‘ to him that the UK water sector can operate properly without national planning (for me, a telling recognition of the same UK water ‘policy vacuum’ that was highlighted by last year’s Gray Review).

One of the coffee breaks provided an interesting opportunity to find out more about globally who invests in water utilities – thus steering attitudes to risk in the sector. Several conversations suggested current water sector investors want to maintain low-risk/low-return conditions – and paradoxically see little additional risk from the latest White Paper and Ofwat proposals but are still (apparently) lobbying hard against them. Other chats highlighted disillusionment with a continued lack of joining-up of water issues with energy sector and climate change policy-making processes.

For the afternoon, sadly Anne McIntosh MP was a no-show (seemingly due to the publication of the Draft Water Bill that morning). Still there was an interesting workshop session on multi-stakeholder, ecosystem approaches – including attempted calculations of costs and benefits.

Overall though, in spite of the friendly and excellent conference organisation, and the grand Royal Geographic Society venue, I left Future Water 2012 disappointed. The sector needs to move up a gear but stubbornly continues to coast along. It needs ‘revolution not evolution’ to echo the message from a recent Water UK Innovation Hub. Perhaps calls for a greater scope and pace of change will intensify during the pre-legislative phase of the Draft Water Bill. Maybe customers (citizens) will be brought in more to set higher expectations for the sector (something Ofwat’s Sustainable Water event touched upon the day before, on 8 July; Regina Finn’s summary of it during Future Water made me wish I could have attended but sadly I had a diary clash.)

There is time for greater change to be built in but where is the political and wider stakeholder will to do so? On the evidence of this year’s rather low turnout and unchallenging Future Water (which was billed, let’s not forget, as the ‘main forum on the future of the water sector‘ in ‘one of the most important years yet for the water sector‘) frankly, I just don’t see it…

Duncan Thomas

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