Water shortage in Kent
On 19 December, 3,500 households – about 10,000 people – were without water. This was stated by Greg Clarke, MP for Tunbridge Wells, during a debate in Westminster Hall last week. The water company responsible is South East Water. So, what had gone wrong?
The MP had made enquiries with the company and reported what he had been told:
‘Floods in November had put out of action the water treatment works at Groombridge and Tonbridge, and a power cut at around the same time had hit suppliers from Bewl Water. Those incidents caused quite significant loss of water for many households throughout my constituency, but they also had a knock-on effect. Those failures meant that one of the main holding reservoirs that supplies the town of Tunbridge Wells, an underground facility on the Pembury road, fell to less than 20% of its normal capacity. When the cold snap hit in December, with the water leaks from burst pipes that that entailed, the reservoir was too low to supply the population that relied on it. It could not refill, because as much water was being taken out through burst pipes as was being put in.’
The MP listed some of the consequences of this water shortage. For instance, the dialysis unit at the local hospital had to shut until after Christmas. Constituents had written to him to complain, and he listed their predicaments: a mother with a newborn baby unable to mix formula milk, another with a diabetic son; a clinical worker unable to wash or cook after a long shift; a household of four adults unable to wash or cook.
There were complaints that, although the water company did make free bottles of drinking water available (at a Tesco car park), there were too few collection points. Someone without a car would have had to walk 45 minutes to fetch bottles. People from Benenden would have had to drive 45 minutes to the depot.
In a tribute to the water company engineers, he also acknowledged that they were working round the clock to restore supplies in spite of the damaged pipes. But the over-riding question he asked is: why is the water company not planning for resilience?
Do we take water too much for granted?
I think most people are just too complacent and take water supplies for granted in England. Having grown up in Kent, I can understand this. Most years, we were never short of rain (except during the well-remembered drought year of 1976). Furthermore, most houses had a tank in the loft. So even if there was the occasional burst pipe just after a few days of frost, we could still get water from the loft tank (provided we had lagged the pipes there! Admittedly, I recall one instance when it was necessary to take a warm storm lamp to the loft to unfreeze a supply pipe).
It is different these days when water comes directly to the house and our appliances rely on the mains pressure. Actually, my sources in Benenden say that their household did not suffer a complete loss of water in this recent crisis: just a noticeable loss of pressure.
How to prepare
Because we do not expect a water shortage, most people are taken by surprise. But in fact, it is possible to sign up to South East Water as a ‘vulnerable’ client. What they then do is supply you in advance with some 24 bottles of drinking water. This is what some of those complainants should have done – the new mother, the family with the diabetic son, etc. But of course, many people don’t like to acknowledge their vulnerability, or don’t recognise it until there is a crisis.
My sister is even more prescient and self-reliant. She says that from watching TV pictures of crises in various countries, she has noted that people carrying water in plastic buckets often tend to be in the foreground. She advises all her adult children to keep a reserve of water in a large 20-l bucket. Those of us who got the water butts to catch rainwater (free for the asking from Southern Water) would not have suffered in the recent cut.
The threat of climate change
Then there is climate change. Looming over all the planning of the local water companies is the prediction that the South East will be running short of water. Population and housing are growing, while the summers are getting drier. Our current water usage per household has increased hugely in recent decades, with more plumbed appliances, bathrooms and toilets in each house. What to do? The Government has proclaimed a target of 110 l of water per person per day. Average consumption is 142 l per person. New houses are now being built with the lower limit designed into the plumbing.
So what can we do?
But if we live in older houses, what to do? A report published in 2014 to help households with planning for less extravagant water usage states:
‘At Home with Water can reveal that showers are now the largest user of water in the home. Across Britain, we use in the order of 840 billion litres each year, and spend around £2.3 billion on heating water for showers. We can report that, every year, more than 740 billion litres – enough to fill 300,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools – is flushed down the loo. And our dishwashers and washing machines use 360 billion litres each year, costing households £1.6 billion in electricity bills.’
The 30 pages of this report provide detailed information on the breakdown of both water use and the energy needed to heat water in the households they surveyed. For those trying to save household costs during the current energy crisis, these recommendations are still valid: take shorter showers, don’t fill the kettle too much, etc.
In short, even ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ may need to adjust their household usage of water and prepare for future water cuts.