As I write tonight this is the scene outside my window:

Photo: Yorkshire Water repairing a local leak that cut off the community water supply.
Photo: Yorkshire Water repairing a local leak that cut off the community water supply.

A team from Yorkshire Water is at work repairing a leak and working on the water system as our entire community has been without its clean water supply for about seven hours (so far).

In the UK, in the 21st century, it’s quite an unusual – and unnerving – experience to turn on a tap and nothing comes out. Hopefully this incident will prove to be temporary but if nothing else – on top of the inconvenience of not be able to access drinking water, to clean dishes, to flush toilets, to do any laundry, or to bathe little ones – it’s an interesting exercise in empathy for a situation that billions around the world, of course, sadly still face every day.

The whole episode got me thinking about water supply conditions when I was a child, as I sit here wondering whether or not to use the loo realising I’m unable to flush it – my recent idea to re-capture water from our condensing tumble dryer may yet prove to be a boon here; I’ve got bottles of it around the house, and it could be perfect for just such a use:

Photo: Some of my supply of recycled condensed water from the tumble dryer - fine for toilet flushing and hand washing, but I'm not going to drink it or brush anyone's teeth with it just yet!
Photo: Some of my supply of recycled condensed water from the tumble dryer – fine for toilet flushing and hand washing, but I’m not going to drink it or brush anyone’s teeth with it just yet!

This is not just nostalgia but rather because when I was younger, growing up before the England and Wales water sector’s privatisation, I clearly recall many, many times when a van from Welsh Water Authority would come around to announce, via a van’s rooftop megaphone, that we were facing water supply interruptions, dirty water incidents, boil water notices and so forth; these were truly a regular occurrence. I also remember lots of problems with discoloured water, turbid water, and low pressure. There were various times too when I’m pretty sure one member of my family or another got ill from our supposedly ‘clean’ drinking water supply.

Thankfully such incidents and interruptions have got rarer and rarer as the years of gone by. This has been as billions of capital have been poured into the system, at customers’ expense of course, and as regulatory institutions were created and have enforced various national and international standards (i.e. these things are not just inevitable outcomes of privatisation, in spite of what many would seem to want to lead us to believe over recent decades).

In spite of the UK water industry’s penchant for talking up the sector on the back of these customer-funded investments, incidents like this live one that my community is suffering today are a reminder that the system is not perfect. Companies also have a long way to go in communicating better with customers. Just for instance, I only found out that this interruption was the company’s side of things after ringing them myself. There has also been no update on what is going on – in spite of Yorkshire taking my telephone details (oh, and of course I can’t ring them for an update, because they are now closed – great for them, but not so great for me).

Plenty of room for improvement is the feeling then I’ll be taking into this year’s upcoming national water policy conference, Future Water 2013, in a few weeks time. (I’ll also be having a word or two with anyone I encounter from Yorkshire too, and will ask what has happened to the ‘zero customer-facing interruptions’ strategy they have in the pipeline… I guess they are not quite there yet, judging by my experience today!)

Duncan Thomas

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