WATER! WATER! ANYWHERE?

South East Water customers invited to comment

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

South East Water, which supplies some 2.2 million customers with water in the south east of England is inviting customers to comment on its 25-year forward plan. They want feedback on the plan by 19 May via an online survey. So far there have been only 322 responses. Why don’t people realise that they can vote in English democracy not just for local and national government but also to express opinions that may guide utility companies?

Clean water will always flow

What kinds of things might water customers have opinions about? The most drastic is, of course, water supply. In 21st century England, we assume that clean water will flow from the taps whenever we need it. This involves constant maintenance of pipes to ensure no leaks or broken water mains. It also means water resilience to ensure supply meets demand (see more on this below). Customers hate water restrictions like hosepipe bans in the summer that prevent the washing of cars or the watering of vegetables.

Water pressure is also a problem in some areas. The old system of plumbing put cold water tanks in the lofts of suburban houses, but nowadays modern boilers take water directly from the mains. Sometimes a plumber will inform a customer that the pressure is too low to plumb in an additional piece of household machinery.

Hard water

The hardness of the water is a problem all over the south east as much of our water comes from chalky sources. We therefore have to purchase extra chemicals to descale kettles and washing machines, and for cleaning the toilets. Many householders also shell out for the cost of a water softener and regular deliveries of the salt pellets for it.

I do not understand why the water company does not (or cannot?) soften the water before reticulating through pipes that surely must also get blocked by calcification. Surprisingly this does not appear on the list of “wants” which SE Water has discovered from its customer consultation so far, of 270 people across seven months.

Perhaps it is the sheer size and diversity of the water sources that renders decalcifying impossible. South East Water draws from 250 boreholes, six rivers and six reservoirs. It has 83 treatment works and 9 000 miles of pipes with 520 million litres of water pulsing through every day, maintained by 950 employees. New investment for 2020–2023 is likely to be as much as £430m: for comparison about a quarter of the size of the total KCC budget.

Water shortage predicted

Kent is now prone to droughts. For the last three years there has been too little rain in April. In fact this April we had a third of the expected normal rainfall. With climate change, the prediction is it will get worse.

“You find in all the water companies’ business plans a chart in the form of a graph, also known by some as the jaws of death (though that’s not what they call it in the glossy business plans). This chart draws two lines across the X/Y axis.
The first line shows projected water demand over the next several decades in the region the water company serves: and in all the water company plans this line goes up, as more people, homes, and businesses appear over time.
The second line shows the water that will be available to supply those needs: and in all the water company plans this line goes down, as the effects of climate change kick in.
And somewhere out along the timeline, usually around the 20/25 years from now mark, those lines cross. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the jaws of death – the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs.”

(Sir James Bevan,at a Waterwise conference 2019)

Waterwise, based on 2015–6 data, reported that the average household in the South East consumed 161 litres per day (actually down from 167 in 2011) while Hartlepool homes consumed 127 litres on average.

What is it about the South East that makes us more greedy of water? Is it more household appliances? The hard water? More watering of lawns and gardens? More washing of cars? Research waiting for South East Water to undertake, I think, which boasts the chirpy slogan, “to provide today’s water service and create tomorrow’s water supply solutions.”

Lowering water demand

Now that there is more awareness of ‘the jaws of death,’ planning is utilising the concept of the ‘water footprint’. Part G of the Building Regulations 2010 stipulates that there should be a limit of 125 litres per day for each new housing unit. Waterwise even says that should be as low as 110 litres. That is to be achieved by greater use of water-efficient devices by utilising fittings that are covered by the EU Water label. Developers will have to be much more specific about devices fitted. There is even the suggestion of offering customers a discount on the water infrastructure charge if all fitments in a household conform.

The problem is that there is an awful lot of old housing in the UK with fitments like old toilets and baths that do not conform. Each bath uses 80 litres of water compared to the average of 32 litres for a shower. A leaky toilet can gush out 215 litres per day. There is no grant or incentive to upgrade except the water bill but smart metering helps to make consumers more aware. 

Democratic decision-making

The 25 year forward plan summarises five commitments by South East Water:

  1. play an active part regionally on the impact of housing growth
  2. fair pay, reward and recognition of employees
  3. more partnership projects on water use and vulnerability
  4. ‘future generations’ schools work
  5. Support tap water refill campaigns

Who makes the real choices?

Are there actually real policy choices to be made? Isn’t it just a matter of the engineers and financial managers making all the big decisions? An interesting example of a real policy decision is published by South East Water. In order to provide for the increasing water demand, there is a choice between investing in a coastal desalination plant in north Kent or a new reservoir at Broad Oak, near Canterbury. The desalination plant, an engineering solution, is cheaper and could be installed sooner. The reservoir is more expensive, but it would provide a landscaped solution with social benefits. The decision-making so far supports the reservoir.

It is commendable that so much can be found out about the decision-making of the water companies. So let more of us participate in the democracy they offer by giving them feedback via the survey. They are trying to save our children from ‘the jaws of death’.