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Should water be free

When considering if water should be free at the point of use, it is perhaps more pertinent to look at why we have to pay for our water supply. It is widely known that the Earth's surface, and to a lesser extent, ground water is intrinsic to a cycle in which it falls as rain or snow before being stored in oceans, reservoirs, rivers or as ground water. Under the sun's influence, a proportion of this stored water evaporates and condenses to fall as rain or snow once more. The total volume in this water cycle remains constant to a large extent. The largest volume of stored water is found within the oceans and because of its high salinity, is undrinkable. In order to utilise sea-water for consumption it is necessary to install desalination units which are costly in both set-up and long-term energy use. Drinking untreated rainwater is inadvisable because of contamination by airborne pollutants and the consumption of water stored in reservoirs or rivers carries the risk of infection from microorganisms. In order to prevent disease, it is therefore necessary that all water intended for human consumption is treated in some way.

The London cholera outbreak - a link between dirty water and disease
Cholera is a waterborne disease caused by Vibrio cholerae, a Gram-negative bacterium that produces a toxin which results in severe vomiting and diarrhoea. If untreated, the infection can result in death within several hours due to massive dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Prior to the 1849 cholera outbreak in London, there was no known link between disease and contaminated drinking water. Indeed, many of the medical profession at that time continued to reject the theories of Doctor John Snow, who made the connection between a street pump in Broad Street in London and the eventual deaths of in excess of seven thousand people (Bingham, et al. 2004). Upon examination, Snow investigated the drinking water from different origins and concluded that the water from the Broad Street pump was contaminated by sewage. He further suggested that this contamination was responsible for the outbreak (Snow, 1855). The causative organism, V. cholerae, was first isolated and described by Robert Koch in 1883 (Madigan, et al. 2000). In developed countries, cholera has been largely eliminated mainly as a result of efficient sanitation and the purification of drinking water.

The water industry in the UK
The turning point with respect to water supply in the UK was the Public Health Act of 1848. The act made local 'boards' responsible for sewage and water supply to the residents in their area. The first of the boards to publish an annual report was the Metropolitan Water Board in 1890 (Drinking Water Inspectorate, 2007). The water industry is largely overseen by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). Regulation is achieved with the assistance of the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), whose task is to regulate drinking water quality and the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) whose concern is largely the economic aspects of the industry. Water UK represents the interests of those involved in the water industry itself. The industry was privatised by Act of Parliament in 1989 at which time it had a collective debt of £5 bn. This was 'written off' by the Government with a further £1.6 bn being invested (Ofwat). The latest water act (the Water Act, 2003) makes provision for licensing and compensation.
In its annual report on the standard of drinking water, the DWI reported that the overall standard was in line with European directives, with 99.96% of all tests meeting those directives. However, the report went on to say that there had been an increase in the level of Escherichia coli in reservoir samples tested, most likely as a direct result of 'unsatisfactory reservoir maintenance' (DWI, 2006).
The average price paid by households in the UK is currently £285 per annum. This is set to rise to £295 per annum by the end of the 2009/10 charging period. This can be broken down into £155 for sewage and waste water and £140 for the provision of safe drinking water. The water industries had requested a 6.2% rise with a 4.2% increase being permitted by Ofwat.

The volume of water within the Earth's water cycle remains largely consistent with water being stored in oceans, rivers and reservoirs. However, water obtained from these sources is, on the whole, unsafe for human consumption. To make this water available to drink, it has to go through a variety of processes, each involving considerable investment both financial and in respect of time spent in treatment. The cost to the water industry over the next 5 years is likely to be in the order of £16.8 bn. (Ofwat, 2004) and with none of that funding is met by central government, it is the consumer who has to pay the bill.

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