Heatwaves across UK show we need publicly-owned water

| 13th August 2018
Children playing in water fountain
Extreme water waste is driven by private profit motives - and is unacceptable in a time of climate change. The UK must bring its water supply back into public ownership, argues ADAM McGIBBON

We need strong public control of the water system, with a focus on investing revenue into stopping leaks, educating the public about water conservation and planning on a country-wide level to prevent water scarcity.

A prolonged drought pushed the city perilously close to ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town, April 2018 – the day when taps would finally run dry for the 3.7 million residents of the city. Drastic, inequitable cuts in water usage narrowly averted disaster. 

A near-catastrophe like this grabs at our base fears. For many of us, water is something we’ve always taken for granted. Without immediate access to water, chaos and unrest potentially beckons.

Privatised water

This isn’t just something that water-scarce South Africa has to worry about. In a world where about one degree of human-caused climate change is already locked in, countries as far north as Canada could soon be grappling with severe drought.

In England, we depend completely on our water system, but have little control over it. 

The 1989 privatisation of water made England and Wales the only countries in the world to have fully privatised water and sewage systems.

The results are well-publicised: water company bosses in England earned £58m in pay and benefits over the last 5 years, and employed "controversial tax avoidance strategies" while not investing in the infrastructure. 

Water bills have risen 40 percent above inflation since 1989Public support for water nationalisation is now at around 83 percent.

Extreme mismanagement 

But what's been missing from the debate around water privatisation is the urgent need for the public to have control over their water supply as the planet warms. 

This is not far-fetched in Britain anymore. The Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, have warned that we will see more heatwaves in Britain like the one we are experiencing this summer.  

What has this got to do with privatised water? The UN Development Programmehave noted that water scarcity has a lot to do with the mismanagement of water, not just a physical lack of water. 

England’s privatised water companies are classic mismanagers. The UK water sector’s average loss per house per day is 121 litres, a staggering amount. London's supplier, Thames Water, loses even more - around 150 litres per house per day .That’s about two full bathtubs for each house, every day.

The urge to make profit in water will now put lives and livelihoods at risk. Of the entire pumped water supply, a staggering 20 percent is lost every dayto leaks, according to the National Infrastructure Commission. 

Profit motive 

United Utilities, who supply North West England, have been accused of ignoring leaks in the heatwave in order to boost profits.  It’s clear that the urge to make profit and run the water supply as cheaply as possible is now incompatible with delivering an essential service.

We need strong public control of the water system, with a focus on investing revenue into stopping leaks, educating the public about water conservation and planning on a country-wide level to prevent water scarcity. 

These are things the fragmented private sector companies just cannot do, because it would get in the way of their duty to make profit for their owners. 

United Utilities has just paid out £180 million to its shareholders, a sum which would have been better used preparing for a water-constrained future England - particularly when the Committee on Climate Change have identified the region they serve as being particularly susceptible to water shortages in the future.

Water companies will protest that they have invested to improve the infrastructure. This is only partly true. Water leakage did improve throughout the 1990s, then plateaued by the year 2000, staying at roughly the same level that it’s at today.

Political control

The reason for this shows why we can’t tolerate water in private hands any longer – the National Infrastructure Commission put this down to water companies deciding that “it would be cheaper to use more water than reduce leakage.”

While it’s true that some publically-owned water utilities in Europe are worse for leakage, it's also true that the best systems are publically-owned. The Netherlands, where private provision of water is illegal, has a leakage rate of just 5 percent - a quarter of the UK’s leakage. 

It's clear that without the political control that comes with public ownership, and the removal of the profit motive, we stand no chance of having a water system fit for the future – only a system built for a small number of shareholders to enrich themselves as the threat of drought in England becomes more and more real.

The state promises to protect people and ensure their safety and security. But with no proper control over our water system, how can the government do this in the future? 

Water privatisation needs to end not just because it's a bad deal - it needs to end now because our water supply in a climate-changed world depends on it. 

This Author

Adam McGibbon is an Irish campaigner and organiser. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman and others. He tweets at @AdamMcGibbon

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