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Have your taps ever run dry?

water supply

Running water is something we take for granted in the UK, but with recent water shortages affecting many areas of the country, is that set to change? And do you know your rights when your supply is cut off?

Last weekend, my house was one of more than 20,000 households in London left without water. Temperature changes in the aftermath of Storm Emma and the Beast from the East caused frozen water pipes to thaw and then burst, leading to multiple leaks and drained reservoirs.

For three days, we relied on the few bottles of mineral water we could grab from the supermarket (most had run out) to drink, wash and cook with.

Twitter meltdown

When we first discovered the problem on Saturday evening, we checked Twitter to see if anyone else was having water issues. Sure enough, there were hundreds of frustrated tweets from people in the same boat.

As you’d expect, most of the online frustration was directed at Thames Water, which serves more than nine million homes across London and the Thames Valley.

Many people, including me and my housemates, were wondering how long we should expect to be without running water: how long would it be before we could flush the loo again? What about washing? And when could we fill the kettle again to make a cup of tea?

No news is not good

Thames Water did not provide the answers we were looking for.

In fact, the lack of communication from the water company only added to the frustration. Phone lines were jammed and the social media team gave ambiguous, non-answers that served to infuriate people more.

Some free bottled water was provided at a few locations, but our nearest collection point was a 15-minute drive away – pretty useless if you don’t have a car or can’t drive. For vulnerable people unable to get out to buy or collect bottled water, the situation was potentially dangerous.

Eventually, on Sunday evening, news reached us that the water would be turned back on on Monday morning, in time for work, but when this deadline was missed, the timescale was shifted to ‘the end of the day’.

For some households, this meant they were without water for a good 72 hours.

Water rights

In my opinion, the exceptional weather, crumbling Victorian infrastructure and lack of communication all combined to create the perfect storm of confusion and anger.

The industry regulator Ofwat has since said that water suppliers had ’fallen well short’ on forward planning and now MPs are calling for a public enquiry, as well as compensation for the people affected.

As I’m one of those, I’ll definitely be claiming – but would you know how to go about it and do you know your rights when it comes to water shortages and your water supply being cut off? If my neighbourhood’s experience is anything to go by, you might need to know one day.

Have you ever been affected by water shortages? Did your water supplier keep you informed? Do you know your rights when your water supply is disrupted?


This made the national news and was the matter of tremendous concern. Why? Because it happened in London. Like heavy snowfall, unless it happens in London, it’s apparently of no importance.

Our water comes from the reservoir / lake five hundred feet above and half a mile to the East of our house. Many around Snowdonia get their water from streams and springs; it’s very common, so when there’s a drought, as can happen in hot, dry spells, conserving water becomes the name of the game, and nipping to the local swimming baths for a shower isn’t unheard of.

But we used to suffer outages very regularly, until the main pipe was renewed from the lake to our hamlet. In 2010, when temps fell to -15C and remained there for a week, the water continued to flow.

MPs are incensed, I hear, and OFWAT is muttering darkly. But if I had to bet, I’d say that cut offs happen all the time and all around the country. Because it’s happened in London, of course, things may now change. But perhaps what we should be campaigning for is a less London-centric approach to dealing with such issues.

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“London” is a big place having around 14% of the UK’s population, so not surprising it is in the news to illustrate the affect of burst mains. However, the news also included the “south east”, which is more than London, and Staffordshire and other parts of the Midlands for example.

Do we replace every water main to get rid of the old and potentially fragile pipes? Can’t be done because of the money involved, can it? So very very occasionally there will be a problem and we have to accept it. Just how many times a year do you lose your water supply? Can’t you cope with it?

Some free bottled water was provided at a few locations, but our nearest collection point was a 15-minute drive away – pretty useless if you don’t have a car or can’t drive“. A bit unfortunate, but try buying some (if they have any) from your supermarket , tie up with a friend with a car or contact the water company.

“water suppliers had ’fallen well short’ on forward planning“. Does this mean they should have predicted a particular area would have a burst main and been ready with bottles?

Last September there were two major water main failures affecting our area at the same time. One was 26 feet below ground, so hardly an easy or quick job to repair. We were given automatic updates every 2 hours. This was Thames Water – well done to them.

Compensation? You’ll all pay for it through increased bills. If the water company is incompetent or negligent then other action should be taken, but when it is essentially caused by an act of God should he provide the compensation? 🙁

What became of the multi-billion pound London water ring main that has been the cause of road blockages around inner London for many years? This was designed, first, to act as a trunk distributor of water to places where there was a temporary shortage, and second, to act as a form of reservoir to ensure that additional supplies would be available at any location in the capital. One advantage of underground water storage is that it is not exposed to sunlight or evaporation. Has the ring main been completed yet, or commissioned into service? Most of our recent monarchs have been named after enormous reservoirs built around London over the last 100 years. There should have been no general water shortage and I was surprised to see reports that reservoirs had been running dry due to the escape of water through burst pipes. Did somebody make that story up? – I saw no reference to scenes of deep flooding that would have occurred if there had been large scale bursts. Small scale leaks [occurring before the supply could be isolated] would have eventually fed back into the aquifer from which London draws much of its water so there is not much actual loss of water, albeit it has to be treated again before it can re-enter the supply.

The suggestion for a national water grid would largely have used rivers and other waterways to carry the water around the country, rather than a large bore pipe from Scotland to southern England. There would have to be large pipework connexions and valves or sluices between the various rivers, canals and reservoirs forming the grid and that would no doubt have been extremely expensive. There were also serious concerns over river quality and wildlife protection if excess water was suddenly diverted from one river to another in order to boost supplies to another region. Central management and control of water transfer had also not been satisfactorily resolved and a long lead-in time would have been necessary.

I believe that the last time that a water company had to undertake large-scale temporary water distribution was in 1995 when, during a drought, Yorkshire Water had to set up a massive operation involving fleets of tankers to ship water from one side of their supply area to the other because reservoirs had dried out. The company was criticised by the regulator at the time for inadequate planning and contingency arrangements. The logistical operation itself was impressive but the inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of customers was massive and the cost was colossal. A pipeline was subsequently constructed to enable the balancing of supplies. Topographical factors were involved here that do not apply in the Thames Basin.

It’s accepted that not all old & fragile pipes can be replaced, so companies should have better processes in place when shortages occur/supplies cut off. The lack is communication is incredibly poor! We can’t change water supplier so we shouldn’t be taken advantage of. Not only would it be difficult for vulnerable people to go out and buy water, but also for those with young children and babies to look after.
Good luck with your compensation claim!

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I didn’t notice anyone saying it was impossible, Duncan; difficult and extremely costly, yes, but not impossible.

Anglian Water have been replacing [or relining] old mains supply pipes for many years and have more recently been replacing the individual service pipes between the water main and the intake valve or meter chamber with priority given to lead pipework which is most prevalent in older housing districts.

The work on replacing the service pipes has been remarkably quick with a surprisingly small amount of disturbance to properties or the roads and pavements. Beyond the valve or meter the replacement of old pipework is the property owner’s responsibility so many older properties still have a lead pipe into the building or up to a cold-water tank in the loft.

The less lead pipework the better but it is often prohibitively expensive or inconvenient to replace the intake pipe, so where lead pipework is present it is advisable to draw off a litre or two of water to waste first thing every morning before filling the kettle or having a drink of water.

For most of my life I have lived in areas with modern pipework and the only time my supply has been interrupted has been for scheduled maintenance work. When cold weather was forecast I filled a plastic container in case of interruption of the supply or frozen pipes.

Some are unconvinced that we need decent broadband provision in the UK, but a reliable source of safe drinking water is essential. It’s obvious that in some areas, supply piping is overdue for replacement, partly because of the vast wastage caused by leakage. John mentions a couple of the problems associated with moving water round the country, and there are more. Water is a valuable resource and we need to stop leaks and move to metering of all use.

It is an interesting problem that arises very very infrequently and so the matter of cost to benefit should be considered. There is no doubt Thames Water failed “to deliver” in terms of communication. It will be interesting to hear how a unique service can scale up it’s communications in an emergency.

On a technical note the trend to rising mains and the loss of cold water tanks in the loft has no doubt made the cutting of water supplies much more damaging as effects start immediately.

That there should be a back up bowser service for deployment would seem simple on the face of it given the Army should have a reasonable number. It then comes down to having arrangements in place for deployment and ensuring all people had access. There would always be a minimum time before it could come into effect and knowing what that is, and the amount of bowsers available would hopefully come up in the post-mortem.

it is now sunmmer and we have a shortage of water for over 5 weeks .United Utilities say they have 20%extra demand , we have 20% more houses here. and this was planned for years. What has the company done about anticipating this extra demand.. I get a rush of water in middle of day but not between 7.00 and 8.30 and not between 6.00 pm and 10.00pm when it gets dark. and people stop watering their gardens. I get some water so they fulfil basic needs but boiling a kettle to wash is not good enough.. my grass is brown and my raspberries are brown and dead. and so will I be if this is not put right. I am not the only one with this problem and all I get a technician coming in hours when the flow is higher, and doesn’t understand the problem .they are just prevatricating and hoping it will rain and solve the problem.. They say they have the water but cannot treat it quickly enough .Sounds like a bit of forward planning is needed. This has happened before and has started to be a recurring problem. at times of heavy demand without a heatwave.

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It is a feature of a drought that the distribution of additional water supplies can be hampered by the available treatment facilities. Like dealing with rare snow in England, it is a compromise between risk and cost.

Whereas the volume of water stored in reservoirs and in the rivers is an important factor it is not the most critical one when demand is running high, as is the case with prolonged hot and dry weather. The pace at which the stored water can be filtered, treated and purified before going into supply becomes much more significant and if the consumption rate exceeds the production rate then, before long, localised or periodic shortages will occur. Water treatment is generally a large-scale and slow process and requires a lot of land and plant. Boreholes with water towers can process water quicker but are usually of small capacity and only meet the needs of a village or small settlement. It is possible that the water industry has miscalculated the amount of capital investment in treatment works that is required to maintain adequate supplies at times of peak demand. Although rain will help by reducing the demand for water for irrigation purposes that on its own is not going to solve the overall problem; more useful would be a sustained reduction in temperature to the seasonal norm in order to decrease domestic demand. The water industry might have calculated that the change in the UK’s industrial capacity, and various water conservation measures, might have led to lower consumption, thus postponing the requirement for investment in new production plant, but this has been offset by an increase in domestic and commercial uptake arising from population growth, better hygiene standards, and more water-based processes.