Telling Tales – Vive la révolution – on water!

By Natasha Wiseman, Founder & Chief Executive of Make Water Famous and WiseOnWater.

I was lucky enough to spend the month of June travelling around France, trying out life as a digital nomad. First stop was as a guest of friends with a beautiful farmhouse at the foot of a deep rift in the French Pyrenees.

Natasha Wiseman
Natasha Wiseman

I was promised stunning views and a decent wifi connection – as long as I put in some hours on site. I can say that the first was bountifully provided, but the wifi presented a few challenges.

I realised that talking to 300-plus people for Stockholm International Water Week about water communications, while fading in and out of range, would rather undermine my message. So the best option was to drive to the top of the nearest hill to hook into 5G via a hotspot from my mobile phone. So far so good.

My friends’ campervan also became an outside broadcast vehicle for an interview on CC Water’s Waterfall podcast with Mike Keil and Karen Gibbs – who do a wonderful job enlightening people about how our water systems work. If you are not yet a subscriber, it is time to give it a go.

Wifi was not the only fragile service out in the wilderness. Special attention also had to be given to water. We had to collect our drinking water in cannisters from a roadside spring – pure enough to require no treatment.

Meanwhile water for all other purposes – showering, toilets, clothes washing – was piped in from the river, via a storage tank and filter, to the tap. This is where things got serious. The flow had stopped and someone had to venture upstream to prime the pipe.

I stood up from my laptop, knowing this was my calling. After battling through brambles, navigating nettles and standing up to our waists in the river’s rapids – we got the flow going again, which I can honestly say was many times more satisfying than my day job of writing about water.

With careful management, this off-grid supply, once used to irrigate an apple orchard, is consistent. However, the Pyrenees-Orientales region has had 35-40% of its usual annual rainfall and faces serious water shortages.

Rivers are drying up and some Pyrenean villages have lost their usual supply sources altogether. Car washing, garden watering and filling up swimming pools from municipal supplies have all been banned.

News was filtering in too from the UK, with households and schools in parts of Kent and Sussex going without water due to unprecedented demand, and temporary use bans being brought in. I reflected that having your own supply, piped in from the river, along with free naturally filtered spring water a few hundred metres down the road could become a dream scenario.

Yet, given the value put on water, it should be no surprise that property prices in the region are dictated more by the quality of the mountain views than water availability. Could that change?

In the local market, a customer engagement operation was underway – with two government employees handing out water-saving devices and advice to shoppers and traders. The lead feature in the regional newspaper was also all about water.

President of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, said in a leader column:

“It needs to start today, with a cultural and political revolution, with citizens, businesses and elected representatives. Let everyone realise that our daily behaviours, our consumption, our management of the resource … impacts directly on this situation.”

Given this is France, I would expect nothing less than a “revolution” on water, and it was refreshing to see a politician giving an impassioned and well informed plea  – calling on everyone to do their bit. How much harder it is for the stewards of UK water resources to get that message across.

Media maelstrom over supply issues, missed leakage targets and stormwater and sewage overflows into rivers, along with financial management of the privatised utilities, means few politicians in England and Wales would risk putting themselves between a furious public and the beleaguered water companies. Yet the case still needs to be made for a revolution – or transformation – in our relationship with this most precious resource.

Few homes have their own river or spring, we are all utterly dependent on our water utility to stay supplied, and vulnerable to their planning and investment decisions. Going to the fringes of water and wifi availability in France was an important lesson in how far we would all be prepared to go in securing these services. The answer – as the late rock legend Tina Turner might have put it – is “river deep, mountain high”.



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