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Comment | Confronting future water shortages

Mark Hansford

Water regulator Ofwat may not like it, but temporary use bans and drought orders are real and are in the 10 year plans of water companies as they prepare for life without additional resources in the near to medium-term.

This is the strange world of UK infrastructure policy. Much hysteria is generated by high profile projects like High Speed 2 – a project that has always had a challenge demonstrating its value and benefit and is feeling the heat again with news that the first projects to be let are already running more than £1bn over budget (see p8).

Heat and hysteria

Yet almost no heat and no hysteria is being generated by the fact that Southern Water, for example, is telling Ofwat that supplies will remain “at risk” until “sufficient alternative supplies are delivered” and that on the basis of the environmental conditions it expects to encounter before 2027, the people of Hampshire are going to have to get used to temporary use bans. It remains a fascinating yet bizarre fact that the last major public water supply reservoir to be built in the UK was Carsington in 1991.

It is a curious anomaly. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is in the hot seat here. It is poised to publish its long-awaited report setting out the UK’s infrastructure priorities once and for all, and has already indicated that tackling the water resources issue will be high on the list.

There is about a 1 in 4 chance over the next 30 years that large numbers of households will have their water supply cut off for an extended period

Ofwat is sticking to its traditional guns and telling water companies they must redouble their efforts (again) to tackle leakage and reduce demand through metering. But as we report this month already much is being done to tackle leaks – even to the extent of using Snipe the cocker spaniel to sniff them out. And the notion of metering cutting individual water use from roughly 140 litres/day to between 50 and 70 when water remains, frankly, as cheap as chips seems a flight of fantasy.

The NIC certainly thinks so, and said so, in April, when it politely suggested to Ofwat and the water companies that their plans demonstrate “limited ambition for improved long term resilience.”

Cutting off supplies

It pointed out that with current plans there is about a 1 in 4 chance over the next 30 years that large numbers of households will have their water supply cut off for an extended period because of a severe drought. Tackling this in a panic would cost up to £40bn, it calculates. Instead it suggests a programme of supply infrastructure investment starting in the next regulatory period in 2019 and running through to 2030.

Whether anyone listens – be it the regulator, the government or anyone else – is going to be the first real test of the NIC since its formation in October 2015.

Overseas problems

But of course this is not a UK-only issue. We report this month that Cape Town has its own resourcing problems and is, currently, pursuing similarly optimistic demand reduction measures. Around the world, whether it is south east England, Cape Town, California or Singapore, highly developed economies are struggling to plan for the water they need.

And that is the developed economies. As we also report this month, 2.1bn people around the world still lack safely managed drinking water. That is according to professor Stefan Uhlenbrook, director of the Unesco programme office for global water assessment, who spoke at the ICE in May as a precursor to the first Global Engineering Congress, an event being hosted by the ICE together with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations in October 2018.

It has the bold aim of uniting engineers around the world in the quest to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As ICE engineering knowledge director Nathan Baker says: civil engineers are “in a unique and privileged position” to help achieve the SDGs. We are and it is time to act here in the UK and around the world.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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