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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 June 2006, 02:01 GMT 03:01 UK
Australia gets tough on water

Restricting water to homes is currently banned in the UK but the House of Lords science and technology committee has said it should be considered. BBC News correspondent Phil Mercer reports on how it works in Australia.

Australian drought
The climate forces Australia to take water usage seriously

Australia is a thirsty country and one that is growing increasingly worried about water.

A lack of rainfall, drought and fears over global warming have forced many local authorities to introduce tough restrictions on consumption.

In a country where water is a valuable resource there are penalties for those who refuse to pay their household bills.

Device

Most Australian homes have water meters and people are charged for what they use.

In Sydney and other parts of the country customers can have their supplies partially disconnected for non-payment.

When this happens, a flow-restricting device is installed which limits the amount of water a property receives.

It ensures that basic health and safety requirements are met.

The restrictions allow residents enough to fill a jug and flush the toilet but little else.

"It is an option of last resort," said a spokesman for Sydney Water.

"It is a measure we don't use lightly."

"Under no circumstances do we disconnect supplies," he added.

"It just doesn't happen as we have a duty to protect public health. We issue a series of warnings to customers who won't pay before we take that sort of action."

Negotiated

Sydney Water reports that only a very small number of its customers were affected. "It's only a handful of people every year," said the spokesman.

The Reverend Dr Gordon Moyes, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, told the BBC that charities often stepped in to settle the accounts of those in financial trouble before supplies were cut back.

"I have personally negotiated with Sydney Water on many occasions where people have no money to pay their bills," said Dr Moyes, a former superintendent with the Wesley Mission charity.

"A large percentage of them have mental problems," he explained.

"They either forget to pay bills or simply refuse. Their lives are chaotic."

The House of Lords' committee recommendation has prompted a warning from Dr Moyes.

Deterrent

"The British government must realise that [water restrictions] will affect people who cannot organise a financially structured life like the rest of the community. We need to keep this in mind," he added.

Observers believe that the threat of legal action is a far greater deterrent to non-payers than the restriction of supply.

New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, has an Energy and Water Ombudsman.

Clare Petre told BBC News that her office receives "only a very small number of customer complaints about restriction of water."

"Overall," the watchdog explained, "the number of actual restrictions of water by the large suppliers is very low."

"Affordability is usually behind any restriction of water," she added.

"The socio-economic group usually affected is low income or pensioners and those on benefits.

"I believe that the system for our major water companies is generally fair," Ms Petre said.

"Customers are given reasonable notice of impending restriction of supply. The water companies have policies to assist customers in financial hardship."


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