Fred Starr recollects: waters of destruction

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2017

Fred Starr recollects…

In London, with near-clockwork regularity, we learn of houses, shops and factories having been inundated by another burst pipe. It is a consequence of a mains water system around a century old. It’s also a feature of modern life, where water companies do not have much financial incentive to rebuild the network – in contrast with gas, where leaks are lost revenue. By volume, water loss is 20 times that of gas.

When British Gas was a nationalised industry, with strong and purposeful R&D departments, it was decided that cast iron gas mains should be replaced with high-grade polyethylene. Using generous safety factors, the design life is 50 years. The water industry doesn’t seem to have such a consistent approach – a variety of materials are being used, but judging from a talk I heard at the West Surrey Materials Society, it sounded like none are ideal. There is still hope that cast iron will survive a bit longer! 

It is heartrending to see, on TV, tear stricken householders bewailing the loss of treasured possessions, and shop and factory owners facing bankruptcy. But in this country, pipeline issues don’t put lives at risk. In the developing world, where population growth outpaces the creation of infrastructure, it can be different.

I was in Karachi, Pakistan, when I got myself into serious trouble. ‘Don’t eat anything that isn’t freshly cooked’, I was told, and even more strongly, ‘Don’t drink anything that hasn’t come out of a bottle’. I was at a conference to show how technology could help Pakistan, and there was an effort to show just how much still needed to be done. 

One late afternoon we started off by bus along one of the seemingly mile-wide boulevards, to the shores of the estuary. Once out of the city proper, the road was lined with a continuous shanty town, overlooked by overcrowded, low rise apartments. We were being taken to see what could be done about this.

We halted alongside an isolated walled enclosure, on a wide and featureless deltaic plain. Within it, a tiny proportion of the families from the slums were being sheltered, temporally, before getting a step upwards. Once they saved about £50 they would be given a two room “house” within the enclosure. No running water, just an electricity supply – but from the expressions of the new owners, it was apparent that this was nirvana.

Our bus driver brought out a couple of crates of soft drinks, handing out bottles to each of us in our party. I looked down at the young kids from the enclosure, dancing excitedly around us. How could I be drinking luxury among such poverty? As soon as I was given a bottle, I passed it on. This happened four or five times. 

As evening fell, we were driven back to a buffet in a garden at Karachi University. Arriving after four hours without a drink, I was absolutely parched, but at the entrance to the garden were two big galvanised cans of ice-cold water, screaming ‘drink me’. 

The next day, an initial feeling of being off-colour, then a lack of interest in sightseeing, worsened to the point of having to race back to my room for an emergency appointment with the toilet. Three days of hourly visits to the WC later, I sounded like a 90-year-old tin miner. I was so dehydrated my vocal cords had dried out and so confused I didn’t realise how ill I was. The hotel staff saved me, calling in an emergency doctor who, along with the antibiotics, got me to drink four litres of rehydration fluid. Even now I can feel how my legs filled up.

Why is tap water in Karachi so lethal? Over there, the network is completely overloaded, with pressure dropping daily, and groundwater, fouled by leaking sewage pipes, getting into the mains water supply. Perhaps we in the UK are better off with the occasional pipe burst, keeping in mind what President Lyndon Johnson once said about it being better to have your enemies inside the tent peeing out than outside peeing in!