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Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Drought may not be in the public eye as much as flooding, but to the Environment Agency it is as big a concern. Drought By Margo Cole.

After a couple of wet summers, attention has, understandably, been focused on the threat of flooding, but for many parts of the UK the biggest threat is acute shortage of water.    

Publishing its “Water Resources Strategy for England and Wales” at the end of March, the Environment Agency (EA) said: “Although climate change will lead to more frequent and heavy downpours, and increase the risk of flooding, overall it will reduce the amount of water available in rivers in England and Wales by 10%-15% by 2050, and up to as much as 80% during summer months.”    

Water resources are already under pressure in many parts of the country

The EA’s over-stretched resources will be further tested by anticipated population growth, which could see the number of UK residents grow by up to 20M between now and 2050. And the vast majority of this additional population will be in areas that are already heavily urbanised and in the densely populated southeast.    

The EA’s strategy for tackling future water shortages is based heavily on reducing water demand, with a lot of faith being put in the comprehensive introduction of water meters to encourage households and businesses to cut their water usage. As the agency’s chief executive Paul Leinster says: “People and businesses need to use less water, and wasting water needs to cost a lot more.”    

His proposals also include a review of the way the water industry is regulated such that water companies are rewarded for reducing the amount of water they supply.    

This would certainly help water companies, which currently see their revenues drop when income reduces due to customers reducing their water consumption.   

People and businesses need to use less water, and wasting water needs to cost a lot more

At present 30% of households in England and Wales have water meters. The EA claims that metered properties use between 10% and 15% less water than those without meters, so it is easy to see why it wants to introduce near-universal metering – especially in the water-stressed southeast. It also claims that this reduction would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to between 27% and 40% of the UK’s total carbon reduction target because less use of water would mean less corresponding heating of water.    

Alongside the metering strategy, the agency is advocating a new approach to sourcing water to make the country less reliant on those that are vulnerable to climate change. It is an issue that has already been considered in Australia – one of the most drought-hit regions of the world – where there is a move away from “climate impacted” supplies like surface water, rainwater, rivers and groundwater in favour of “nonclimate impacted” alternatives like desalination and recycling.    

This is reflected in the Water Resources Strategy for England and Wales, which says: “In the context of climate change, some options will be more reliable and less vulnerable than others. For example, effluent re-use and desalination will be much more reliable in the future than rainwater harvesting, direct river abstractions and reservoirs.”    


People live in areas where there is less available water per person than in Spain or Morocco

However the EA’s remit requires that it considers not just water supply, but wider environmental issues, and the report continues: “When choosing options we must consider the costs, the carbon footprint of the option, the level of service required and the need to protect the environment.” As a result, it proposes greater local and inter-basin connection between supply infrastructure, improved base flows in rivers through land management techniques, more re-use of highly treated effluent, using water storage, desalination, “conjunctive use” of supplies from different sources and “conjunctive use” of resources with demand management.   


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