A new water industry report looking at the long-term resilience of public water supply says the UK faces a “significant and growing risk” from drought.  

The research report Water resources long term planning framework (2015-2065), released the same day that the nation recorded its warmest September day since 1911, says that an effective response to the significant and growing risk of drought in England and Wales is possible if concerted action is taken now.

Breaking new ground by deploying new modelling techniques and by looking 50 years ahead across the whole of England and Wales, the research modelled the possible effects of climate change, population growth, abstractions, environmental protection measures and trends in water use to produce a wide range of future scenarios.

The modelling shows that extensive measures to manage demand and enhance supplies of water are needed to contain the risk of drought, for example, by:

  • promoting more efficient water use in homes and businesses, through improved building standards and widespread use of smart metering, as well as more ambitious reduction in leakage from water mains;
  • moving more water from one region to another through existing waterways and new pipelines, building new reservoirs, treating more water for re-use and building desalination plants to make use of sea water.

The report’s authors conclude that, by adopting a step-by-step approach, the additional cost of making the supply of water more resilient to severe droughts would be equivalent to about £4 per annum per household. By contrast, the impact on the economy of inaction could be very high, costing an estimated £1.3 billion per day during the most widespread situations of severe drought modelled in the report.

The report comes shortly after publication of the Government’s National Floods Resilience Review, which acknowledged that at many times and in many places, water is in increasingly short supply. The Review said there are obvious benefits to managing water in a way that reduces both flood risk and water stress.

Key findings and recommendations in the report include:

  • There is a strong case for the UK and Welsh Governments to consider adopting consistent national minimum levels of resilience, recognising that there are significant issues to address, including inter-regional and inter-generational fairness
  • The investment needed to increase resilience is relatively modest compared with the cost of drought
  • A ‘twin track’ approach that includes supply enhancement, with associated transfers, as well as demand management is the most appropriate strategic mix for the future
  • There is a case for a national level ‘adaptive plan’ that supports on-going Water Resource Management Plans and balances risk against opportunities to defer costs
  • Industry, government and regulators need to work together with customers on how best to respond to the risk of severe drought.

Ben Piper, Atkins’ technical director for water resources, and project team member, said:

“The UK water industry is faced with a difficult future to plan for and to maintain a resilient water supply system. Climate change and population growth combined with tighter than ever environmental standards, all add up to a major challenge. This report lays the challenge out in detail but also points to some tangible solutions.”

Jean Spencer, regulation director at Anglian Water and chair of the steering group for the project, added

“The threat of drought is already with us – were it not for the unprecedented rainfall in the spring of 2012, we might have suffered significant problems with water supply that summer. This is world class research that will support companies and government in planning for resilient water resources in the future.”

The study was funded by Water UK and was led by a steering group, comprising water companies, regulators and UK and Welsh Government representatives. Atkins worked with a team, including representatives from Mott Macdonald, Nera Economic Consulting, HR Wallingford and the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute.

Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of Water UK, said:

“Since privatisation, the industry has invested billions of pounds in securing the nation’s precious water resources, but we all need to do more in the face of current and future pressures on those resources.

“We are publishing this ground-breaking research today so that water companies, government, regulators and other agencies can together raise their game in how we plan to keep homes and businesses supplied over the next fifty years.”

Commenting on the report, Nicci Russel, director of water market regulator Ofwat, said: “The approach set out in the report could deliver real benefits to customers, the economy and the environment. Progress in water efficiency, tackling leakage and sharing water between companies are central to securing a resilient water supply, at the same time as helping to keep bills down. And companies will want to develop new and sustainable services and ways of delivering them as they consider the affordability of their plans for customers.

“The water sector is facing some critical challenges, which we need to address together. Our new regulatory approach is helping to secure a resilient future for water, for the benefit of customers, the environment and wider society. And we are encouraging the development of new markets to ensure more sustainable use of resources, and better value for customers.”

Rose O’Neill, freshwater programme manager at WWF-UK, has called for a reform of water abstraction licenses, which are used by water companies and farmers to take water from rivers, lakes and underground sources of water.

O’Neill said: “In the future, pressure on our rivers and water supplies is only going to rise. We need to act now to ensure that we have enough water for people and nature in years to come. Abstraction licences ensure that rivers don’t dry up as demand for water increases. Yet the system is out-of-date, unsustainable and not fit for purpose.

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