Freezing temperatures across the United Kingdom have put water companies across the devolved areas of the United Kingdom to the test. The chill and thaw has burst pipes, leaving tens of thousands of people without water for over a week. In responding to the crisis, privately-owned Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru and privately-controlled NI Water have come up short compared to its publicly-owned, democratically-controlled counterpart in Scotland.
Scotland, where the water utility is still under full public ownership and answerable to the government, most successfully dealt with the water crisis. Scotland's water authority has re-laid burst pipes deeper in the ground, to ensure the same crisis does not happen again. Scotland boasts an 880,000-litre ready reserve of water on hand at all times for emergencies, and has even given thousands of litres of drinking water to Northern Ireland for free! The Scottish government credits Scottish Water's efficient and thorough response to public ownership and control of the water utility – an socialist idea called for by Marx and Engels.
In Northern Ireland, the water authority remains under public ownership. However as part of an agenda of privatisation of public services, NI Water is not under democratic control. Pat Lawlor and Paddy Meehan of the Socialist Party in Ireland explain, “NI Water was designed to become a privately-owned company. Two thirds of water staff were laid off and private companies have been running much of our water service for many years now”. Consequently, water infrastructure has been allowed to degenerate. Thousands remain without water in the province. Residents of Belfast have been collecting water in buckets from the River Lagan and one doctor described the situation as a “public health crisis”.
The other devolved areas faced far greater challenges than Wales, with 40,000 people cut off from drinking water in Northern Ireland. Yet fully-privatised Welsh Water lags behind not only Scotland but Northern Ireland in restoring services to residents. Five times as many homes in Scotland as in Wales lost water – but now, ten days later, more Welsh homes are waiting for water to be restored than Scottish ones.
In an ironic absurdity, some face lack of drinking water while also suffering floods; engineers have no access to broken water pipes in the thousands of empty second homes that dot North Wales, and the filling basements of the well-off deprive life-long residents of basic hygeine.
The hard-working engineers and plumbers of the water authority are by no means at fault for Welsh Water's sluggishness; many have been working overtime and driving long distances to restore services to villages in Mid Wales. Rather, blame must fall squarely on the jumble that serves as Wales's water service since privatisation. Residents complain of misinformation and lack of coordination, as homes which were promised the restoration of services days ago continue to go without water. Welsh Water's failure to maintain a reserve meant wasteful panic-buying of bottled water. A resident of Abernant said simply, “Dŵr Cymru have been completely incompetent.” The draining of Llanishen Reservoir, a direct consequence of privatisation and the selling off of public holdings for commercial development, meant low pressure and lack of supply in working-class areas of Cardiff.
Welsh Water's competence has been thoroughly oriented toward the market: the executive of Scottish Water is composed largely of civil engineers, but Glas Cymru, the private holding company that runs Dŵr Cymru, is packed with aristocrats, bankers, members of high society, directors of big business and that great scoundrel of the ruling class, the MBA-holder. A non-profit business, Welsh Water's directors surely find enough profit in the favourable treatment they guide toward their own companies. A public utility in private ownership cannot serve the public, it can only please its owners.
Socialist Party Wales members standing as part of the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition in the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections will call for nationalisation of water, electricity, gas, rail and other public services under democratic control. Removing the profit motive from essential services is a beginning step toward building a socialist economy across Britain. The public needs utilities it can rely on, making public ownership under democratic control a necessity.