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Water special: All dried out

After a second dry winter in south east England, drought is making the headlines. But whose responsibility is it to make sure we all have enough water? Margo Cole reports.

Last month’s drought summit, called by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), coincided with the news that the South East of England is now officially in drought after two years of much lower than average rainfall, with little sign of prolonged heavy rainfall in the near future (NCE 23 February).

Speaking after the summit, environment secretary Caroline Spelman said that it is not just the responsibility of government, water companies and businesses to act against drought, and urged the whole population to use less water.

But, while water companies and businesses have financial incentives to reduce water usage, most householders do not, as Defra acknowledges in the water White Paper it put out for consultation at the end of 2011.

Relatively cheap

“Water is relatively cheap compared to many other household bills, and we want it to stay that way. But this means that financial incentives to cut water use are weak,” it says.

As a result, the onus falls back on the water companies to find ways to encourage a reduction in water consumption. One option is to get water meters into more homes, but Defra opposes compulsory metering, saying it believes water companies are “best placed to find the appropriate local solution in discussion with their customers”.

However, it does suggest that water companies could introduce different pricing structures for water depending on demand.

“Customers generally pay a flat rate for their water, even when metered,” it says. “There is no incentive to reduce water use at the times when sources are under the greatest stress and the cost of water is highest.

Where is the drought?

Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, and west Norfolk have been in drought since June 2011.

Last month Hampshire, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Surrey, London, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and the east of Gloucestershire were added to the list.

In addition, Shropshire and Nottinghamshire are badly affected by dry weather, and the Midlands, East Anglia and the south east all received below average rainfall for January. September 2011 to January 2012 was the driest ever five month period in East Anglia.

“Companies could start to offer a greater variety of tariffs, incentivise greater reductions in water use and make charges fairer.”

But, as ICE water panel chair Michael Holden says: “There is no point in having tariff structures unless you’ve got a meter to measure usage,” and at present fewer than 40% of households are metered.

“If we look to make immediate decisions about long term issues when we are in cases of extremes, we are unlikely to make great decisions”

Mike Woolgar, Atkins

Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (Ciwem) executive director Nick Reeves agrees with
Defra that more must be done at householder level, describing current drought conditions as “yet another wake-up call” for urgent action on water efficiency, water metering and retrofitting of water-saving devices.

Ciwem says people are insufficiently aware of the possible impact of drought and of measures they can take to help to reduce its effect.

“It is time that people started to realise that they should not expect an unlimited supply of water at all times,” it said in response to the drought summit.

The institution cautions against “knee-jerk calls” for new large scale water infrastructure, but water companies argue that, long term, new storage capacity will be necessary if climate change predictions prove accurate. All the current projections suggest that drought conditions are likely to be more common, with the worst case scenario suggesting we might have 10 times as many significant droughts by 2100, and a severe drought every 10 years.

White Paper

In the White Paper, Defra accepts that “however effectively we manage demand, we will need new investment in infrastructure to capture more water”. But, industry experts are cautious about simply relying on new storage capacity.

“Reservoirs are one answer, but integrated recycling management and water reuse should be seriously considered,” says MWH water sector business director Richard Ratcliff. “Water reuse can follow a hierarchy, increased environmental flows being the simplest, where effluent from wastewater treatment plants is pumped further upstream, followed by localised irrigation and industrial water reuse, potable water displacement, then indirect potable water and, finally, desalination.”

Atkins managing director, environmental and water management Mike Woolgar says: “If we look to make immediate decisions about long term issues when we are in cases of extremes, we are unlikely to make great decisions. “The existing drought permit and drought order processes are quite serviceable to respond to current shortages.”

But he says: “In the future, with rising population, rising demand, potential impacts - spatial and volumetric - of climate change, something more fundamental in water management will be needed. The most likely scenario is that there will be less water to go around for all uses, unless we seek to store more, use less, and make more efficient use of what we take - probably in combination.”

Ratcliff says we could learn lessons from other countries that have already had to deal with drought conditions.

Seven year drought

“During Australia’s recent seven year drought, water companies and councils initially didn’t want to believe that it would be a long term problem, and they believed that a reduction in water consumption would protect water resources and long term supply. But as reservoir levels dropped the issue became more serious,” he says. “The length of the drought meant that water companies had to look at a prioritised
approach.”

This included effluent reuse, such as using high grade industrial water to displace potable water usage at steel mills and power stations.

Norton agrees that a range of measures are needed. “If we are to avoid the spectre of drought becoming an annual event we must urgently change our approach to water management, taking a more strategic overview and focusing on preventative measures for addressing scarcity before it gets to drought stage,” he says.

“Introducing demand management measures, improving interconnectivity between water companies and better and more imaginative methods of storing winter water would be a good start to safe-guarding this precious resource for the future.”

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