It came to me while I was standing on a river bank. It was such a ridiculous, nonsensical idea that I instantly tried to dismiss it. But it was like the wiggliest of wiggly earworms that just won’t leave you alone, like a tune that just keeps boring its way into your mind. That melody was: London is running out of drinking water.
Don’t take my word for it. Try the National Audit Office, which looked into the country’s looming water crisis two years ago and concluded: “If more concerted action is not taken now, parts of the south and south-east of England will run out of water within the next 20 years.” And it’s not just London – the same report warned that water shortages are an impending risk for all of the UK.
Then there’s John Armitt, the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, who just this week told the Guardian that the government’s approach to keeping our nation’s taps running amounted to nothing more than “keeping [its] fingers crossed”. And the public accounts committee, which has berated the government for allowing water companies in England to leak more than 3bn litres of water a day from their badly maintained, underinvested, creaking network of pipes.
How on earth did we ever manage to get ourselves in a position where England is looking at a water shortfall of 4bn litres a day by 2050? And while I’m thinking about it, can someone please explain to me why over the past two years we have allowed water companies to spend almost 6m hours on 775,704 separate occasions dumping sewage into England’s rivers? It’s an act of environmental destruction so wide reaching that not a single river in the country is currently listed as being in “good” overall environmental health. Every single river is polluted and one of the largest sources of the pollution? The water industry.
I’m afraid what you are witnessing right now is simply the physical manifestation of 30 years of underinvestment, 30 years of regulatory failure, 30 years of mismanagement and all of it topped off with 30 years of a political vacuum, devoid of oversight and scrutiny.
Rather obscenely, at the same time, regulators have allowed water companies to pay out more than £72bn in dividends to shareholders, while saddling the companies with more than £50bn in debt and paying £58m to the chief executives of the dozen largest water firms in just the last three years.
So, what’s to be done? From a personal perspective, the time has come for the environment secretary, George Eustice, to start behaving like the environment secretary.
You see, Eustice, Ofwat and the Environment Agency between them have the ability to fix this in England with nothing more than the stroke of a pen. Ofwat, for instance, by merely issuing an “enforcement order” is instantly granted the ability to fine a water company anything up to 10% of its annual turnover for not complying with its instructions.
Would losing 10% of the annual turnover, I wonder, help focus a few boardroom minds? I suspect it would. It is also time we held water company directors personally and collectively liable under the Companies Act for the devastating impact those companies’ operations are having on the environment.
But there is another side to this. We, as users, are going to have to redefine and reshape our relationship with water entirely. On average in the UK we use about 142 litres per person per day; this is almost double the usage of the Baltic countries where people use between 61 and 77 litres per day.
If you live in Hertfordshire, that average goes up to 174 litres per day and most, if not all of it, is coming from the chalk aquifer, the underground reservoir that should be feeding our chalk streams. Rarer than coral reefs, about 85% of the world’s total supply of these miraculous, magnificent river systems are in southern England, and we are killing each and every one them. Hertfordshire’s chalk streams are drying up, and parts of the rivers Ivel, Ver, Ash, Rib, Quin and Beane are no longer world-renowned rivers of distinction, but have been reduced to nothing more than grassy ditches running through open countryside.
It may come as no surprise to hear that over the past few months I’ve had any number of invitations from water company CEOs to meet with them, to have tea, to bond as grownups, to muse over water company environmental, social and governance policies. I’ve even had the occasional invite to visit a sewage treatment works – what fun.
I have declined them all. In my world, there are but two issues facing the water industry and the nation right now: water supply and water quality. In my opinion, if your annual salary is measured in multiples of millions, and your shareholders reap annual dividends measured in billions, you should be in a position to produce a plan that deals with both these issues. Just show me the plan, show me the strategy, do your job.
Alarmingly, behind these words that wiggliest of wiggly earworms keeps boring into my mind. Currently, some are predicting another dry winter, like the one last year. If that happens, we will be in serious trouble by 2023. Politicians could be deciding which factory gets to have water and which doesn’t, which farmer gets to irrigate their crops and which doesn’t, and we may find ourselves waiting in a queue, bucket and saucepan in hand, for our turn at the standpipe.
If that is the outcome and you happen to see me in the queue, do come and say hello. If you are a water company executive, I like my tea with milk, no sugar please.
Feargal Sharkey is a campaigner and former lead singer of the Undertones