· Features

Utility companies should play vital roles in the communities they serve

Water is essential to sustain life. But because we live in a land where incidences of water scarcity are so rare they make headlines - as when 40,000 homes in Northern Ireland were without water - we don't realise we are lucky, with abundant clean water on tap.


Water scarcity affects one-fifth of the world's population. Not only does it force people to rely on unsafe sources of drinking water, but also it drives up the use of wastewater for agriculture in poor communities. More than 10% of people worldwide consume foods irrigated by wastewater.

As governments make it a priority to deliver adequate supplies of quality water, individuals can help by learning how to protect the resource in their daily lives.

Organisations can take a lead here. Not surprisingly, the water companies are making a splash.

Five years ago, Yorkshire Water became the first organisation to be awarded the Investing in Volunteers for Employers quality mark. Nearly 40% of its workforce (885) took part in projects recognised for benefiting communities.

Southern Water has appointed a charity and community officer. The dual role is to co-ordinate and encourage the efforts of company and staff to support community organisations and charities.

Southern operates a broad programme of community-support activities. In the past year, there has been a 414% increase in the number of staff taking part in the volunteering scheme.

'Blooming Schools' is Southern's flagship CSR initiative. It challenges schools to create water-efficient gardens and then compete for the title of best school garden. It provides opportunities to forge stronger links with schools, reinforcing water conservation practices and enabling the company to give something back to the communities it serves. Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins is scheme ambassador.

"We have long maintained that utility companies should play vital roles in the communities they serve, over and above the services they provide," says Geoff Loader, director of communications at Southern Water. "We encourage employees to help local organisations. There has been little impact on turnover, but a huge impact on the quality of life for thousands."

A significant measure of that success is that the company's employees have raised a record £350,000 in the past 12 months, much of which has been invested in life-saving equipment.