Water & Wastewater – Review of the Year 2006

The year started with drought dominating headlines in England, a country not traditionally known for its lack of rain - news that caused considerable amusement over on the continent.

Back in Southern England householders had less to laugh about, however, hit with a series of hosepipe bans and threatened with compulsory water meters or even water rationing after the winter of 2005-6 proved the driest since the 1920s.

London’s water supplier Thames Water unwillingly found itself in the spotlight in June when it was forced to admit it had missed its annual leakage target for the third year in a row. The announcement, which coincided with the revelation that the company’s annual profits had risen by 31%, prompted a public outcry and fired up a debate over who should be shouldering the responsibility for tackling the drought – water companies by cutting leaks and boosting supply, or water users by cutting water waste and reducing demand.

To the indignation of consumer associations and others urging water companies to take responsibility over water waste, Thames escaped from the ordeal without a fine. It was instead ordered to spend an extra £150m on replacing London’s rusty water pipes, many of them dating back to Victorian times.

Water meters were also high on the agenda, with Folkestone and Dover Water the only company in the land granted the right to impose metering on its customers, and Thames Water putting forward plans to install meters in all London homes from 2010, hoping to tap into the 10% water savings that customers are estimated to make when forced to pay for the amount of water they use.

After a dry winter and autumn and a scorching July, August brought rains worthy of a “normal English summer” – perhaps crushing the hopes of local holiday-makers but allowing water companies to breathe a sigh of relief. Thames Water withdrew its request to impose a drought order on Londoners in September, judging the summer rain sufficient to at least stabilise the situation. By October Folkestone and Dover became the first water company to withdraw its hosepipe ban.

Thames’ proposed long-term solution to London’s water woes – a giant desalination plant that would source water from the Thames estuary – met with ferocious criticism from the Mayor of London and environmental groups alike over the amount of energy the facility would require to run, contributing to climate change and indirectly to future drought.

Similar reasoning was behind criticism of a proposed national water grid to pump water from the still-rainy North to South East England. Quite apart from the costs of building the system, which could reach £15bn, the energy needed to pump thousands of megalitres a day would significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, an Environment Agency report concluded in September.

But it was the effects of climate on water, and not vice-versa, that dominated debate around the globe throughout 2006. By the end of the century a third of the earth’s surface could turn into a desert. if current climate trends continue, the UK’s Met Office warned. This year Australia and the Horn of Africa were particularly hard hit, although the dramatic difference in the devastation caused on the two continents drummed home the developing world’s inability to cope with the effects of climate change.

While Australia debated the controversies of water recycling, its citizens outraged over the prospect of “drinking sewage, or named and shamed water waste villains, in East Africa hundreds died and millions risked starvation.

Although the global water crisis is a threat to both rich and poor countries, with the Australian economy already hard hit by an enduring drought and American farmers suffering the effects of low summer rainfall in the central states, the developing world is already bearing the brunt of climate change and the consequences on water resources it brings.

Goska Romanowicz

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