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Water resilience must be gripped as a national challenge

5 min read

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.“ Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a stark reminder of how important water is to human life, and the frustration of not, seemingly, being able to use such water as we have.

Devon is theoretically now in drought. But what does that really mean? It’s a measure of the resilience of the water supply we have in our reservoirs based on expected rainfall. The West Country is always disproportionately wet. This year in January to March we had the wettest spring on record. So why are we in drought and why do we have a hosepipe ban?

At the heart of this is the basic arithmetic of the relationship between demand and supply. The average individual uses 145 litres of water a day. The government would like to reduce this to 122 litres a day. In Devon this summer, unless we use less, we won’t have enough to meet expected demand while ensuring future resilience. Hence the hosepipe ban. Clearly we need a buffer. But given the level of rainfall, why has it come to this?

First, the level of rainfall and nature of rainfall has changed. Second, we have not expanded our capacity to catch and store water to match the increasing size of the population. Third, we have failed to adequately deal with water loss through leakage. And finally, whilst water companies are responsible for ensuring water resilience, there are no targets to drive change in the same way that we now have for storm overflows.

Water companies must comply with Ofwat’s long term planning frameworks. They can choose how they deliver resilient supply using reservoirs, water transfer, desalination or effluent reuse. These are expensive projects and right now the urgency to focus on this is missing.

Much is promised by water companies in their draft Water Resource Management Plans for 2024 – but will the real plans deliver? A lot of reliance is being placed on consumers using less rather than companies collecting more. Of course we need to be careful about what we use, but water companies need to be focused on collection and reducing leakage within their collection and distribution networks.

Although these fixes seem straightforward, the problem is inevitably more complex. Rain doesn’t fall evenly, not every water company has the option of desalination, and those parts of the country with a higher influx of tourists over the summer months are particularly challenged.

The cost of resilience isn’t shared equally across the country. Peaks in demand from new housing developments and tourism in one area, are not balanced out in cost terms by the underuse in the summer months as city dwellers head out to the sea. Quite apart from the different state of disrepair in different water company catchments which drives disproportionate costs, this means the cost of water will vary considerably across the country.

The government encourages us to use less but without national messaging.

Government incentives to manage and nudge our behaviour are confused and counterproductive. In Devon we have a drought and a domestic hosepipe ban - yet the bed and breakfast businesses can keep hot tubs going, changing the water between guests.

The government encourages us to use less but without national messaging. Did you know that a typical full bath uses 80 litres, a washing machine 50 litres a cycle, and the dishwasher 14 litres? Initiatives to require manufacturers to make machines more water efficient and with educational labelling are the way to go  – but this needs turbocharging.

Water is an increasingly rare resource, and while huge focus has been given rightly to wastewater and its polluting effects, we must urgently focus on the water catchment and storage part of the equation. We have realised rather late on that we have underinvested in nuclear power. I don’t want to see a lack of investment in water catchment produce similar outcomes.

It takes two to three years to replenish a water reservoir from 70% to 100%. Water falls in different places at different times, we need new smaller reservoirs not an overreliance on increasing capacity in those we have. Desalination in coastal areas must be brought into the mix. Currently, there is only one desalination plant in the country. We must also find a mechanism to distribute consumer costs of water more fairly, perhaps using a similar mechanism to business rates.

The government and the regulator need to up their game. Focus on water collection and storage, develop better ways of sharing the water we have, and sharing its cost across communities. Water companies need more than an obligation to ensure water supply and deliver resilience. They need better and more ambitious targets which properly recognise the real future demand.

Leakage reduction must be borne down upon. Water resilience must be gripped as a national challenge, not something which can be devolved to water companies to deliver. And as consumers, we must play our part too. But we need educating to do so.

Water, water, will not be everywhere…but there must be enough not just to drink but to sustain life as we know it.

Anne Marie Morris is the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot and a member of the Public Accounts Committee

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