UK Parliament Research Briefing ‘ Water quality and availability are linked to the wider environment, agricultural practices and energy security, and these interdependencies can be a source of vulnerability. Evidence suggests that a broader risk-based systems approach to water resource management could improve water resilience. This allows a better understanding of risks across society and the impact of trade-offs between stakeholders, the environment and the economy in different management scenarios.

Environmental policy is a devolved issue in the UK and this POSTbrief focuses on the resilience of water resources and public water supply in England, where supply is largely provided by privatised water companies. Those responsible for water resource management and planning in England have recently adopted a national water resources framework, including regional planning and cross-sector collaboration. Water companies must complete statutory Water Resources Management Plans (WRMPs), which show how a water company will manage water supply and demand over a minimum of 25 years. New regional plans will inform future WRMPs and will be published for the first time in 2022. Further information on the different water and wastewater companies covering different geographic areas is available on the constituency information: water companies data dashboard.

A twin-track approach has been adopted to address the resilience of water supply, which includes investing in water supply infrastructure (including those features of the natural environment that are critical for water resources) to improve public water supply, and demand management to improve water efficiency.  Supply management options include reservoirs, groundwater abstraction (removal of water from an aquifer, a water-bearing rock), river abstractions (removal of water from a river), water transfers and desalination. Demand management options include reducing leakage, metering, reuse of grey water, water efficiency and use of tariffs. Water efficiency measures focus on behaviour change measures, by raising awareness to reduce personal and business water consumption, and on water efficient domestic appliances and retrofitting properties with water saving technologies.

This POSTbrief summarises the drivers and impacts of drought and water shortages, how the water industry is currently addressing these issues, further challenges to be addressed, and how a more holistic, systems approach to water resource planning could increase the resilience of England’s water supply. There are complex challenges to address, but a substantial amount of research is ongoing to improve the resilience of England’s water supply. The following key areas are highlighted in the literature:

  • A systems approach to water resource management would enable interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration to identify and agree acceptable trade-offs to manage water and environmental risks.
  • Recognition of natural capital, the economics of biodiversity and the understanding that a good quality environment will enhance the resilience of water resources to the impacts of extreme weather, including drought and flooding.
  • A diverse range of sources, including groundwater, surface water and reservoirs, will improve overall resilience of water supply. Each source type has inherently different characteristics that can prove to be beneficial in different scenarios depending on climatic conditions and local needs and resources.
  • Good quality data are required for effective planning and decision-making and to provide the foundation for water resource modelling. This requires ongoing resources to maintain and enhance monitoring networks. Model outputs are important for planning purposes and communicating issues to stakeholders and the public.
  • Water efficiency measures are important for improving water supply resilience and achieving net zero. Improvements in household and non-household efficiency and leakage have the potential to make significant contributions to improving water security and mitigating climate change impacts.
  • Effective communication of drought risk is important to change the current cultural narratives around water supply in the UK and engage the public. A wide range of strategies are available, and efforts tailored towards specific audiences have been shown to be most successful.

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