Water, water…nowhere, actually

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

This is, I’m afraid, another rant. It’s a rant about infrastructure. Or rather, the lack of it, and the way what little there is seems to have completely broken down.

Forgive me for being south-east-centric, but I can only write about what I know. This is what’s happening in my little part of the world, however I’m pretty sure that it could just as easily be happening anywhere else across the country.

Just 10 days ago the area was hit by  a huge snowfall in a very short space of time, leaving many roads impassable. Other areas also got lots of snow but we tend to make more fuss about it down here. My friend spent much of Sunday evening slip-sliding her way up and down her rural road, head-torch alight, distributing blankets and hot drinks to stranded motorists, letting them use her loo and her electricity to charge phones, and digging a few out. The south east ground to a halt, schools shut, trains and buses could get nowhere.

A week later, the temperature rose by a whopping great 10degrees C; the snow and ice has all gone. So, it appears has all the water. Over 150,000 homes across Kent and Sussex have had either no water or intermittent supplies of about an hour for days on end. South East Water and Southern Water have blamed this on frozen pipes suddenly thawing, bursting and leaking. Yes, yes, that theory would hold water (sorry) and make sense, were it not just another reason in a long line stretching back to the Summer.

This week the excuse is the frozen and then thawed pipes. Last week it was the freezing weather affecting the pressure at the pumping stations. In the Autumn it was the aftermath of the hot Summer which had dried out the pipes, in the Summer it was the hot weather, and before that the lack of water in the reservoirs.

The lucky citizens of the town are only without water for a day or so. Others have had intermittent supply for weeks. The unlucky ones are those that have been without water supply for a week or more. That means no washing up, no laundry, no showers or baths, no flushing the loos unless you’ve got a waterbutt in the garden. One guy was on the radio today telling Jeremy Vine that he’d resorted to melting buckets of snow so he could flush the loo. There are water stations where households can go and collect bottled water to keep them going until supplies are restored, but bottles of water can’t fill up the hot water tank, or the cistern, and they won’t help the combi boiler to work.  The sight of people queuing for over an hour in their cars on a road that’s pretty close to gridlock most days to collect their 24litres of bottled water per household makes me shudder. All that plastic. All that carbon. All those diesel fumes. What’s more annoying is that the list of water stations where people can go doesn’t match up to the actual reality. The South East Water website and Twitter fed tells you where to go to get water, you go and….it’s shut, or was never set-up in the first place. Another wasted journey. More wasted diesel.

My local MP has been trying to get some answers out of the water company bosses and he’s assured that they are doing all they can, and that they care very much about the plight of their customers. I’m at the cynical stage now, however, and the local water company in question is owned by Utilities Trust of Australia (50%), Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, a pension fund owned by the Canadian Government (37.5%), and Desjardin Employees’ Pension Fund (12.5%), a North American pension fund. Pretty sure that none of them care two hoots for the customers in a small Kentish town.

I know it will get sorted. I know there are parts of the world where the amount of water we carelessly splash down the sink cleaning our teeth could be the difference between life and death. It’s just that it would be really nice if we didn’t have to deal constantly with the aftermath of corporates putting short-term ahead of long-term investment.

Happy Christmas. Let’s see how much better 2023 will be.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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