Water poverty is the lived condition households experience when they are struggling, or unable, to afford their water bills. Despite a relatively low public profile, it affected approximately 20% of households in England and Wales in 2020.

Currently, as many as 34% of bill payers report struggling to pay fairly frequently. This comprehensive review examines definitions, prevalence and manifestations of water poverty through an analysis of 354 grey and academic documents, dating between 1985 and 2022. Synthesising the literature revealed how water poverty is a structurally-produced problem, reflecting trends in sector governance and wider societal processes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, water poverty was characterised by household disconnections, as defaulting customers were considered a drain on the financial health of newly privatised utilities. Owing to civil society opposition, by 2000 water poverty became a technocratic problem of affordability and debt. Despite certain legal protections for vulnerable households, structural drivers of water poverty were unresolved and rates continued to rise, peaking in 2013/2014.

Contemporary discourse emphasises extending availability, accessibility and flexibility of support, but structural inequalities remain hidden. It is, therefore, highly questionable whether the water sector in England and Wales can fulfil its commitment to ending water poverty by 2030.

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