Water is in the news today; the tension between tourists and natives in holiday destinations; the fact in Wales we apparently only use 5% of the annual rainfall compared to upwards of 20% in parts of the South of England; and finally after days of flooding all hose pipe bans have been lifted in the UK. As one writes one realises there has been no news from the friend who lives near Hebden Bridge; god forbid she has been flooded twice in as many weeks. And how is Sylvia one wonders? Are caskets watertight? Trivial thoughts have no place in the context of such a grave matter.
Why is this most fundamental ney life dependent resource so difficult to manage? Could it be that it has no economic value unlike oil? And simply because the human body needs it i.e. as it is not a luxury good governments have to subsidise the industry. Well at least in the affluent West the state will ultimately be forced to step in to incentivise the investment in infrastructure that’s pipes – lots of pipes – to me and you. Why then are our utilities under European ownership? Are these companies just a little bit cannier or entrepreneurial?
And even then state sponsored intervention doesn’t always get it right. In days gone by the Spinster worked in the social housing sector; in the days when housing associations were in their ascendance with relatively high levels of state support. Today the sector is far more business like forced to become more commercial as the government housing grant falls and the balance has to come from private borrowing. Back then (the 1990s) the St Mellons estate was beginning to be developed with talk that it was (or would soon become) the largest social housing development in Europe. Coupled with this concern was expressed about tenants getting into arrears on their water bills; the solution was obviously integrated payment meters. The unintended consequence – although not entirely unpredictable – was tenants ran out of money to put credit on the meters; young families went without water and stories of associated health scares did the rounds.
The infrastructure promised came slowly with public transport and phone boxes. Mobiles were not common then (for safety the Spinster invested in a handset the size of a house brick – (10 years ago one made a young man dizzy with excitement when said device was handed to the next generation after being uncovered in the attic). The irony was there was no signal at the top of the North Wales mountain so the only way it improved safety was to whack and attacker over the head with it! Believe me there is little more eerie than driving over the mountains on a misty night as the sheep glide in and out of view; their eyes seem to glow somehow. Funnily that was before the Chernobyl incident necessitated farmers here adding a Geiger counter to regular parlance.
The early days of St Mellons were characterised by an overwhelming sense of abandonment. Tenants moved into new properties before road signs had been sited; it was terrifyingly easy to get disoriented finding oneself driving round in circles. People decanted from inner city areas with the promise of space became easily forgotten as they were told to be patient; in time everything would arrive. In the interim imagine how isolated young families felt in their ‘padded cells’; no telephone to call for help; public transport a mile away and then nothing left to pay for water.
The problem was I recall resolved with water meters being removed but not before some people suffered genuine hardship. I remember conversations with the Water company executive, I had met via the Common Purpose programme, about the situation. After seemingly illuminating exchanges and light bulb moments the human impact of an investment related decision became apparent. Reflecting on it now I wonder if some of the problem related to the way social housing tenants were considered; in some way infantilised as ‘unfortunates incapable of basic financial management’ rather than human beings in need trying to bring up families on incomes too small to meet the increasing cost of utilities. By the time the water token was releasing water a not insignificant % of the value had been consumed by the contribution to the standing charge.
The scandal of the Kenyan Rose Trade raised its head, albeit briefly, a decade or so ago. Water diverted to support flower growers leaving native Kenyans in an artificially created drought situation so supermarket shoppers in the UK could feel virtuous when purchasing fair-trade flowers. Surely it wasn’t entirely unpredictable that the push to generate economic wealth from tourism had the potential to do exactly the same? The high-end hotels required facilities to meet the customers every whim from infinity pools to power showers and hand watered lawns. Figures quoted today compare a tourist daily consumption upwards of 3000 litres whilst local people make do with 93. The cruel irony – irrespective of the actual consumption – being the water impoverished locally employed staff service the same water indulged visitors on whom they rely for employment. The tension created does not bode well for social harmony; surely there must be a middle ground beyond the perennial request to use ones towels more than one to save water.
And as I clean myself remembering not to leave the water running I ponder the impact each individual water saving measure has. A combi-boiler is energy-efficient but how much cold water flows down the sink before the warmth permeates? Is it better to adjust to washing ones face in cold water? Apparently this closes the pores so it could be worth considering with the added benefit of shocking the system rudely into the pre swim morning that is 6 am. Once again one ponders the tension between individual comfort and social good; compromise at home is needed as much as overseas. The picture above is of an infinity pool on the roof of a hotel in Tanzania; an uncomfortable scenario that epitomises this matter. One was accommodated thus whilst on British Council business advising on cultural entrepreneurship; soft diplomacy one understands. Would I question the contrast if offered a similar opportunity again?