At the beginning of March this year, winter weather caused flooding and water shortages all over the United Kingdom. Some of the worst hit areas included the South West, Wales, and the Midlands, with parts of London suffering the biggest disruption. 20,000 homes in London were left without a water supply, prompting MPs to call for a public inquiry. For residents in these areas, the lack of effective business continuity planning by water companies like Thames Water, South Water and South East Water was not just an oversight, but a lack of forethought that left people without the most vital of amenities: water.
The problems that the “Big Thaw” caused for residents left without water were severe. Many angry Londoners took to Twitter to express their frustration at being left for days with no access to running water to cook, clean, drink, or bathe. The impact was keenly felt by businesses too, with Cadbury and Jaguar Land Rover experiencing disruption to their operations. For smaller businesses, the impact was arguably greater, with local shops having to close while Tooting High Street had completely flooded due to burst pipes, and Streatham High Road described as a “ghost town“. Local schools also had to close as they were unable to provide pupils with drinking water or flushing toilets.
According to many of the critics of the water companies, lack of investment in infrastructure made a crisis such as the Big Thaw highly likely and predictable, and water companies should have been better prepared to communicate with those affected. Cathryn Ross, chief executive of regulatory body Ofwat, said that the industry needed to wake up to claims that private investors were “lining their own pockets” rather than reinvesting in their service, while Lambeth councillor Scott Ainslie called on Thames Water to “start reinvesting in the pipework”. To put into perspective the scale of the updates needed, it will take 357 years for Thames Water to renew its network at the current pace (it replaced 9.4km of pipes in 2016-17 rather than the planned 26km).
Therefore, knowing that they were behind with vital upgrades, it cannot have been a shock that a crisis would happen with the winter weather. It was no secret that “winter is coming”: the Beast from the East meets Storm Emma was widely reported well in advance. But the water companies, Thames Water in particular, did not seem to be prepared with an appropriate communication plan. Due to the volume of people trying to report the problem and find out more, the website became unavailable and phone lines went down, leaving thousands of people unsure of where they could collect water from. When people were given a date that their water would be back on by via social media, the deadlines came and went still with no water flowing, with customers growing angrier by the day.
Without traditional methods of alerting people about the lack of water and where to collect bottled water, the most vulnerable residents – the elderly – slipped through the communication cracks. While Thames Water were active on Twitter with information and updates (although many Twitter users felt that these updates were inaccurate and too slow), relying so heavily on this platform for communication meant that the elderly and less social media savvy were left in the dark. Nor did there appear to be any plans in place to deliver bottled water to those who were less physically able to make it to the water collection points. The ineffectiveness of their business continuity planning for such a likely crisis was not only imprudent, but dangerous for those residents who were not able to access water for days at a time without help, and made far worse by an over-reliance on one method of communication.
Unfortunately for Thames Water and other water companies, the “Beast from the East” is not likely to be a freak anomaly – or the only kind of threat to water supply continuity. Ofwat’s 2015 ‘Towards Water 2020’ report warns that “The pressures that climate change, weather variability and an increasing population create mean water and wastewater systems and services will face ongoing resilience challenges.” The pressure on our water systems is only going to increase, and with rising costs customers are going to expect a rising standard in service – which includes keeping the water and information flowing through preparedness and business continuity planning.
However, the consequences of this March’s water crisis for Thames Water and other water companies are likely to escalate. As well as the financial hit of payouts to customers who were left without water and the PR disaster from the Twitter furore, the incident has brought attention to an industry that was described by MP Helen Hayes as “not fit for purpose.” The Ofwat review into why this crisis was not avoided is due to be published on June 15th, and will hopefully lead to reform.
It is also a reminder for all organisations – schools, local businesses, manufacturers, transport providers – just how much we rely on our critical national infrastructure (CNIs). No doubt the water companies need to, and can, do better, but when vital supply chains are disrupted, the best that any organisation of any size can do is ensure that they have plans and communication tools in place to weather the storm.
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