Civic pride, the public interest and paying the bills: what does fairness look like for our water supplies?

On hot, sultry summer evenings tourists unsurprisingly flock around the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  There is no better place to enjoy the beauty of the city, an Italian ice cream and dream.  Whilst throwing coins into the Fountain, what few may realise is that the water they are looking at is being transported through an ancient Roman aqueduct. Infrastructure that the far-sighted Romans recognised could help provide one of the foundations for the prosperity of the city  – and indeed empire – for generations to come.

From fine art and the flowing waters in Rome, take an about turn and move on literally to what was London’s dirtiest hour: the Great Stink of 1858.  Sewage on the banks of the Thames had accumulated to such an extent that cholera outbreaks were rife and thousands were dying.  Step forward one of the greatest of the Victorians, Joseph Bazalgette.

Joseph, London’s Metropolitan Board of Work’s Chief Engineer, realised something needed to be done – and at scale.  He designed London’s sewer network, in the process reducing the risk of future cholera outbreaks and cleaning the water in the Thames.  His vision was such that he ensured that the diameter of the sewer pipes being built was considerably wider than what was needed at the time.  This enabled the network to accommodate the extra demands of the growing city and keep the river clean – without the need for digging up roads and knocking down buildings to build more pipes.

As these examples illustrate, the benefits of any new water related investment extend beyond the individuals that use it to wider society and can often be enjoyed both today and way into the future.  Having a long-term vision for such as essential service that can deliver multiple benefits, along with civic pride, would therefore seem important.

But here’s the rub. The future is uncertain.  No one knows exactly how much water will be needed in the years to come, where it will be needed and whether new technologies will emerge that will change the way it is delivered and used.  In addition, the coming generations that may benefit from such far-sighted investments and infrastructure aren’t around to speak up.

At the same time, those who currently use the services, and are likely to be expected to pay for future investments, may already be having problems in terms of paying today’s bills.  A sobering one in eight households across England and Wales currently struggle to be able to afford to pay for their water.  For many, the current system looks far from fair.

This presents policy makers and regulators with an age old challenge – how to balance the interests of current and future generations.   Clearly much can be said about not investing in new pipes and other infrastructure ‘ahead of need’. No one wants to see white elephants and stranded investments that aren’t really needed, particularly when many of today’s consumers already find it hard to make ends meet.  However, it is also important to recognise that putting off decisions around new investments may potentially make them more expensive in the future, reduce opportunities for growth or foreclose future options, particularly if space subsequently becomes more restricted.

These are big issues of public policy that all consumers and citizens should have a say in.  In an investor-owned water system as in England, it is even more important that the public interest is heard when significant decisions are made if they are to be seen as providing ‘just’ water for both today and tomorrow.

In recent years there have been significant and welcome developments in GB in terms of consumer engagement in the water sector.  Local people are now being given a voice in many of the decisions that relate to their water services through formal ‘consumer challenge groups’.  How the collective interests of citizens and communities are able to shape how services and investments need to evolve is likely to be the next stage in this journey.

As our future climate becomes more unpredictable and we increasingly face the risk of too little or too much water, uncertainty may well become more acute.  What we do know, however, is that when droughts and floods hit, communities are in the front line and need to pull together.   Having a shared and developed view of how far and fast we need to invest for a resilient future would seem wise.

All this will necessitate a ‘deep dive’ into the issue of fairness:  what is fair for individuals, communities, our shared society and the future?  People often have clear views about what is unfair – such as risks and benefits not being shared – but less so as to what fairness itself is.

A public dialogue over the issue of public interest and what a ‘just’ water system looks like is a good place to start. It would seem unwise to wait for what could be the UK’s Twenty First Century equivalent of the ‘Great Stink’ before we are galvanized into action.  If we do, Bazalgette and the architects of the Roman aqueducts may rightly question whether we have learnt all we can from their pioneering legacies.

This post from Sharon Darcy has been written as a contribution to the JustWater programme that is raising awareness and activism about water in the run up to the UN World Water Day in March.  Sustainability First’s New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin) is exploring these issues.   At a workshop later this month New-Pin will be asking how far market approaches can deliver desired long-term public interest outcomes such as fairness in energy and water supplies. 

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