Lighting up the Bugs

The UK's United Utilities survived a public relations battle after the cryptosporidium bug got into its supply and 300,000 customers were urged to boil their drinking water. How can water companies reduce the damage -- both financial and reputation -- from such incidents?

Tf Portrait Shot

Tf Portrait Shot

By Tom Freyberg, Chief editor

The UK's United Utilities survived a public relations battle after the cryptosporidium bug got into its supply and 300,000 customers were urged to boil their drinking water. How can water companies reduce the damage -- both financial and reputation -- from such incidents?

As I've said before, the water industry is one of the world's most underrated and underappreciated public services out there. In developed nations the water industry is expected to deliver continuous, clean water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is only until there is a problem that customers start complaining and question how much they are paying for the service.

In the case of United Utilities in the UK's Midlands, the utility had to recently instruct 300,000 households to continue boiling their drinking water due to small traces of cryptosporidium found at a treatment plant. The microscopic bug, which can cause stomach upsets, was initially discovered during routine tests.

This reminded me of a famous quote by the Dalai Lama: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."

To rid its supply of the cryptosporidium, the utility installed several ultraviolet (UV) treatment rigs (see page 54). Calling the move one of its biggest engineering projects to date, the rigs were sourced from across the UK and Europe.

United Utilities told WWi that "routinely our treatment process of coagulation and filtration is enough to remove cryptosporidium" and that the UV technology was being used after the plant as a "belt and braces strategic approach". A formal investigation by the Drinking Water Inspectorate will address how the bug got into the water system and the utility's current treatment infrastructure.

Clearly, dealing with a bug like this is a huge inconvenience, expense and not to mention public relations nightmare -- the story made national headlines. Although the problem was addressed and the solution brought in, the whole exercise got me thinking (I know, dangerous). Shouldn't UV units, or the equivalent, be held on standby for such emergencies? Surely the priority of getting public supply back to normal ASAP would be quicker if such units were available instead of having to be "sourced from across the UK and Europe". Yes, I understand such high-tech equipment is not exactly cheap to have on standby but what price can you put on public health, or a utility's reputation for that matter?

Moving on, as you will have seen on the cover, the focus for this issue's Leader Focus is Japanese water engineering firm, Metawater. Most readers will know the company from its ceramic membranes and partnership with Dutch company, PWN Technologies. However, after raising $222 million from an Initial Public Offering at the end of last year, Metawater is using the cash to go after the international market and get away from the sluggish domestic one in Japan. It will certainly be an interesting and challenging journey for the company but one to look out for.

Watch this space.

Tom Freyberg, Chief editor

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