Reasons to be cheerful

Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, draws attention to the unexpected abundance of good news and good reviews enjoyed of late by the water industry

“Alot done, a lot to do” is a familiar diplomatic formula, used when good performance is reported but performers don’t want to seem complacent or reviewers a soft touch. It happens with the water industry. However, recent data and the comments of reviewers, including government and regulators, suggest as many genuine reasons to be cheerful as to be diplomatic.

Take overall environmental reputation. In May, Lord Sainsbury, minister for science and innovation, spoke of the biggest year-on-year investment in the sector’s history. “The environment has been cleaned up. Drinking water quality is the highest ever. Customer service has risen. Leakages have fallen. And efficiency improvements have been delivered.”1 The minister’s context was exports, but his assessment was not ‘diplomatic’.

If the industry’s own view is more modest, the message is similar. Its new sustainability report is a frank look at a sector working hard to do the right thing.2 The industry claims it “continued to make good progress in key areas during 2003-04 and to maintain high standards in others”. This is backed by Ofwat’s international comparisons. The regulator’s 2002-03 figures show companies in England and Wales performing “as well or better than their international counterparts”.3

Look at more specific criteria, for example bathing waters. August 2004 was very wet. Many CSOs were in use and the result was a fall in the number of bathing sites which met EC mandatory standards. Defra/Environment Agency (EA) figures for designated sites show 543 (97.7%) up to standard in 2004, 545 (98.4%) in 2003.4 The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) reports failure of 52 of some 800 designated and non-designated sites in 2004, up from 26.5

The fall is unwelcome. But consider the comments. Environment minister Elliot Morley: “The unusually wet weather could have resulted in a number of pollution incidents. But the decade-long investment to improve the sewerage infrastructure at our bathing waters has made us less vulnerable to pollution brought about by wet weather, and this is to be welcomed.” Thomas Bell, MCS coastal pollution officer: “Fortunately, huge investment… by the water companies over recent years offset the storm pollution effect, and the overall picture is not as bad as might have been expected five years ago.”

What about rivers? Official data for 2003 put 95% at good or fair biological quality, 94% chemical, on a par with 2002. Nutrient status is less impressive, but moving in the right direction. 53% showed phosphate at unsatisfactory levels (1990 64%); and 27% similarly for nitrate (2000 32%).6 The Environment Agency comments: “Our rivers and bathing waters are the cleanest on record, thanks to years of investment by industry. But more needs to be done to improve the ageing sewerage system and deal with other widespread pollution problems such as inadequate drainage and run-off from roads and fields.”7

The outlook is also good. The EA again, on river quality objectives: “The target for 2006 appears to have been met already but we cannot guarantee that this will be maintained until all planned improvements have been delivered, for example to the sewerage system.”8 In the five years to 2005, it points out, the industry spent £2.9B on improving discharges to inland waters. The agency also records the success of this investment: “[Water company] compliance with discharge consents has improved slightly since last year…”9 At 99% (and ahead of other sectors), the performance of water companies needs no diplomatic niceties.

Abstraction is no less important. The industry takes 16B litres a day through 2,100

licences allocated by the agency for public supply. In 2003-04, including the heatwave, licences exceeded permitted limits by 3.7B litres (around six hours’ supply); in 2002-03 exceedance was 6B litres, albeit on fewer days.10 2.6B l/d were lost from distribution in 2003-04.11 However, the data shows a cut of around 30% since 1993. Ofwat says: “The water companies have made great strides over the last decade … and the majority are now meeting their economic leakage targets.”12

How does this picture strike you? Selective? Superficial? You might ask about emissions or recycling or demand management. The answers are in the Water UK sustainability report.2 They are not all favourable, so yes, there is indeed more to do. But you might also agree that the data and comments quoted here are reasons to be cheerful, rather than just diplomatic.

1 Lord Sainsbury, speech to Innovation and Water conference, May 2005

2 Towards Sustainability 2003-04, Water UK,

April 2005

3 International Comparisons 2005, Ofwat, March 2005

4 Press release, Defra, 9 November 2004

5 Good Beach Guide 2005, MCS, 27 May 2005

6 River Quality Overview, EA, Oct 2004

7 State of the Environment 2005, EA, June 2005

8 River Quality Compliance, EA, January 2005

9 Spotlight on Business, EA, July 2004

10 Towards Sustainability 2003-04, Water UK, April 2005

11 Water leakage 1992/3-2003-4, EA, October 2004

12 Press release, Ofwat, 16 December 2004

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