Hopes for the future

Water companies are looking forward this month to publication of a new national water strategy. Barrie Clarke outlines the benefits of a pathway that tries to involve people and organisations rather than pursue individual economic or environmental goals

The drinks industry knows that to create a feeling of dependability in a flibbertigibbet world nothing works like emphasising the care, and especially the time, taken to distil your hooch (Jack Daniels), serve your pint (Guinness) or brew your espresso (half the high street).

Perhaps the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is working to the same principle. Its Future Water strategy (1) has certainly been bubbling for a long time. The industry is not exactly licking its lips, but it is hoping that the document will point in a new and positive direction. We shall soon know.

Water UK has offered ideas on what the strategy should contain. Overall, Defra should deliver:
  • Greater appreciation of the value of water, for public supply and a healthy environment
  • More integration with other sectors, building on the 2002 strategy
  • Moving from one-size-fits-all regulation to locally sustainable solutions
  • Adaptive planning that recognises risk and uncertainty and stimulates innovation
A strategy that would be good for the country and the industry should cover a range of customer-related and environmental issues (2). Water and wastewater treatment must feature prominently.

Drinking water quality
To secure and improve an already excellent service, Future Water should focus on water safety plans (WSP); on water in public health; and on the need for investment.

WSPs will be central to global drinking water quality in the years ahead. They will underpin a new Drinking Water Directive based on World Health Organisation principles. The main requirement is for conscious management of quality "from source to tap". WSPs make sense and the strategy should identify at least four groups, beyond water companies, with parts to play: consumers, plumbers, landowners and regulators.

Consumers are important because wholesome water can be compromised by poor kitchen hygiene. Water UK is working with stakeholders on a WSP guide to address this sensitive issue. Consumers are also responsible, with plumbers, for household connections and pipes. Everyone has a plumber story to tell. Defra could do us all (and itself) a favour by requiring a framework for formal registration. It's hardly a new idea, but we absolutely know that the benefits to water quality, water efficiency and society's peace of mind, would be enormous.

Rural landowners and urban landlords have duties too; the former to respect drinking water protection areas under the water framework directive; the latter for efficient water facilities management.

There will also be benefits from linking the quality of our tap water to the role of good hydration in both preventative health policy and recovery from illness. And Defra should acknowledge the continuing need for investment in drinking water quality. Public confidence will depend on fixing remaining problems with for example taste, colour and odour, and compliance with the tighter lead standard from 2015.

Future wastewater?
Last year the government published its dry waste strategy. What should a wet water equivalent contain? The overriding policy aim should be to encourage (or enforce) wider involvement in improving water quality in the environment. Water UK hopes for clear commitments:
  • To the polluter pays principle. Because all sectors need incentives to identify the most cost-effective solutions
  • To solving diffuse pollution at source. Because this is more effective than waiting until substances have entered the environment (and organisations will know they must plan to meet their responsibilities)
  • To introduce integrated sustainable drainage. Because many systems are inadequate when demand is expected to grow with climate change
  • To require best-value implementation of the water framework directive, including cost of carbon and recovery of costs when they are transferred from society to specific groups. Because, however hard the politics, fair sharing of burdens between sectors really is important - for the reputation and even the affordability of water services in this country.
1) Future Water, Defra water strategy 2008 working title
2) A summary of water industry proposals http://www.water.org.uk/home/policy/positions/defra-strategy

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