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A fresh water strategy

Comment

It is clear that clean water, piped fresh to every house 24 hours a day has been undervalued by society for too long. And at last it appears times are set to change as we head for a review of UK water strategy.

But will the proposed changes be dramatic enough to finally resolve the UK's water supply problems? It's doubtful.

Right now of course, thanks to higher than average rainfall in winter, across the UK there is plenty of water available. But having seen just 2mm of rain fall in April, and with the hottest summer on record predicted to follow, there are clear signs that we are not out of the woods.

Certainly last year's water shortages and the subsequent media campaign to make the public aware of how much water we use each day helped to curb demand. But six months on and with hose-pipe bans no longer in force, most of us will have reverted to type.

Announcing the government's latest review of its water strategy, environment minister Ian Pearson vowed to change the UK's attitude towards water as a resource by placing value at the heart of his thinking.

This, he explained, would mean taking a serious look at compulsory metering for all and it would mean a major onslaught on current water company leakage rates. Both of which must be good things.

On the one hand we are seeing dramatic population growth in specific areas of the UK as economic activity drives the construction of homes and communities to support jobs and industry.

Add to this the effect of changing weather patterns which seem to be giving us drier winters and hotter summers and it is clear that we can no longer ignore the problem.

Water supply is increasingly becoming a critical factor for society and economic prosperity.

Bearing this in mind, it must be madness that both consumers and water companies have little in the way of real incentives to reduce the amount of water that is wasted every day. After all, what other resource is there that we treat in the same profligate way?

Diffi and politically painful it will perhaps be, but some effective means of making consumers responsible for the water they use is vital.

As is some mechanism to press water companies towards doing all that is realistically possible to reduce leaks.

The solution will have to involve price. If we are really serious about changing behaviour and reducing daily usage to a sustainable level we must reflect the real cost of water in charges.

Consumers will have to be charged more per litre used and companies penalised per litre wasted.

Only when we feel the impact of our actions on our wallets will we sit up and take notice.

And when you look at other bills - power, transport, telephone, leisure - it really is hard to argue that water is expensive. And we have the water regulator to thank for that.

To date the regulator's activity has been largely focused on protecting the consumer's interests from the excesses of a privatised corporate environment.

But it also has a major role to play in driving forward society's response to resource problems.

Times have moved on. The regulator's primary responsibility must now be to ensure that the interests of society are protected from the excesses and growing demands of consumers, industry and water companies.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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