Get what you pay for

Water metering - with safeguards for the vulnerable - is one of the best ways to manage demand, says CIWEM's Nick Reeves

Arguments against mass metering of water supplies just don’t stack up. Accompanied by social tariffs – or a separate social allowance to protect the disadvantaged – metering represents one of the most effective methods of managing demand and rationing by price. It’s a no-brainer.

Intelligent metering accompanied by tariffs will encourage the wealthy to be less wasteful with water and ensure the disadvantaged have access to the water they need.

In between talk of freak thunderstorms and beating the Australians at cricket, droughts and hose-pipe bans have been the chat of choice for middle England – especially in the drought-hit South.

This isn’t just because golf course sprinklers are at it night and day (each course consuming enough water to supply up to 15,000 people each year). It’s about the trickle-down effect that starts with hose-pipe bans, and then moves into really big numbers, like the 1.2B people around the world trying to survive without clean and accessible water for drinking, for growing food and for maintaining healthy lifestyles.

One way to test the commitment that flows from last July’s G8 Summit is to look at the small change of domestic policy this dry and angst-ridden year – and then talk water meters. We are told ad nauseum by scientists and politicos that climate change is our deadly enemy. So we must use every sustainable measure we can muster. What are we waiting for?

Postcode lottery

Water availability is a postcode lottery in the UK. This affects the need for water metering from area to area.

National policies don’t have any resonance. Most water politics are local. That’s why, so far, metering has been a question of personal preference.

Water companies only have to install a meter if an occupier requests it, or when an owner or tenancy changes, or if an area is classified as having water-scarcity status.

Enforced mass metering has been deemed impossible because it is uneconomical – and is generally unpopular with the public. Imposing universal metering is a row waiting to happen, and which nobody has the stomach for. It also comes with a hefty cost attached – £200 a time. But surely governments have to show leadership and be brave.

People should be aware that they don’t need to use hose pipes or sprinklers. It’s time to focus on a situation we all face: acute climate uncertainty.

We must make natural resources highly valued and too costly to waste. It’s time for levers of control – which metering provides. It ensures fair play in a drought. Intelligent metering has the capacity to ration by price, penalise the wasteful and help the

disadvantaged. It is a crucial weapon of the policy maker.

It does nothing to relieve problems of scarcity and drought in parts of the Southeast. But it does begin to move any development of water policy on to higher ground. For too long since privatisation of the utilities, the argument has been bargain-basement stuff.

It’s always raining in Britain, they say, so how can they charge so much for water? Why does the price keep rising? And why don’t they replace the leaky old pipes? But it isn’t always raining – just the opposite.

Over the past 15 years, £50B in City financing has gone into our water and

sewerage infrastructure; cash the Treasury would never have coughed up. And the advance in water quality is huge.

Gushing disasters

Maybe too much of the infrastructure, especially in London, is too old and reliant on find-and-fix maintenance. Iron pipes more than a hundred years old, long enough to wrap around the world eight times, with 60M joints, are gushing disasters waiting to happen. Yet Ofwat’s price review did not allow much in the way of wriggle-room. And spot repairs, they said, were all that were needed.

The debate, after the G8 Summit, is bigger than the argument between accountants, regulators and consumer groups interested in watching the pennies. It’s about sustainability now: a future where water is part of a greater equation. And meters belong in that equation, too. The price goes down if they’re installed en masse, a bravery bonus that even our politicians could share.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie