‘Rome doesn’t run out!’ Water companies slammed for ‘making huge profits’ as UK dries out

Drought declared in parts of England

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Mark Maslin, an author and professor of earth system science at UCL, called out the sector for not preparing enough storage capacity for hot, dry conditions that have led to an official shortage being declared across much of England, stating: “A drought is two things: it is a lack of water, but it’s also a lack of planning for a lack of water.” He added: “Rome doesn’t run out of water. Saudi Arabia doesn’t run out of water.”

The UK faced a record-breaking 40-degree heatwave in July, amid an already hot summer and after a mild, relatively dry winter.

Last week, the Environment Agency declared a drought across eight of England’s fourteen regions. Several water companies have already introduced temporary hosepipe bans for the summer in a bid to conserve water.

A recent report by regulator Ofwat found that of the 17 large water suppliers it regulates, none had met their water usage targets for 2020-21, while five had not achieved their goal for reducing leakages in the system.

A National Audit Office report found that, as of 2018, England and Wales consumed an average of 14 billion litres of water a day – but 20 percent of this, or around three billion litres, is lost to leaks in the system.

In an interview with Express.co.uk, Professor Maslin explained that much of England was moving towards a more Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers but warm, wet winters. But in a year where the winter sees less rainfall, there would not be enough water for the summer months.

He said: “This drought is particularly bad because we actually had a dry winter as well.

“We’ve had 12 months of very dry conditions, which have pushed the infrastructure to breaking point because we don’t have enough reservoirs or stored water to deal with the water demand for south-east England.”

The worst drought Britain has ever faced was in 1976, which saw the driest period since records began in 1717, as well as low rainfall levels not seen since 1850. It saw the passing of the Drought Act, an emergency set of measures that not only banned hosepipes but allowed for water supply to be reduced.

Professor Maslin explained: “That was a very dry summer, but the reason why there was a drought in England is that we had never worried about water and we didn’t have enough storage.

“The Government woke up to the fact that water was an issue and started a large programme of infrastructure building. There were lots of new reservoirs built around the country from 1976 onwards because we realised we needed more water storage to avoid another 1976.

“The summers and dry periods have actually been dryer than 1976, but because we’ve had the infrastructure in place, we’ve been ok up to now.

“But since the water companies were privatised, they do not prioritise long-term strategic infrastructure – because it costs a lot of money to build – and therefore they have not invested enough in water storage, in water recycling, in avoiding leakages.”

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Though Ofwat says investment has roughly doubled since privatisation in 1989, it admits that the companies “are well funded and could invest more if they wanted to”. From 2015-2020, they in fact underspent by five percent the regulator’s target for investment in wastewater facilities.

Referencing the illegal dumping of raw effluent, Professor Maslin added: “We’ve got private companies making huge profits, who are dumping sewage into our rivers and oceans.

“The CEOs are probably going to be taken to court by the Environment Agency over dumping microplastics in the rivers and sewage into our coastal lines. And guess what: in the last 15 years they haven’t invested in water storage to prevent the country from having these major drought periods.”

The scientist did not say the sector should necessarily be nationalised in order to bring in the works necessary to avoid future droughts but argued the natural monopolies water companies held required heavy regulation to ensure infrastructure investment levels were appropriate and on-target.

He exclaimed: “I have no problem with capitalism or competition – the problem is there isn’t any!”

Professor Maslin surmised: “There is not a lack of water, there is a lack of planning and storage for the future. Rome doesn’t run out of water. Saudi Arabia doesn’t run out of water.”

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