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27 November 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 1:16pm

Would a no-deal Brexit really mean running out of clean drinking water?

Some cabinet members think so.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Over the weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported that a no-deal Brexit would mean running out of clean drinking water within days.

Leaked to the paper, the warning from Whitehall’s Brexit contingency plans (codenamed “Operation Yellowhammer”) – outlined by the Cabinet Office’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat – was cited as the reason Environment Secretary and Brexiteer Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have decided to back Theresa May’s deal.

We at the New Statesman pride ourselves on keeping calm in the face of doomsday scenarios. So over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how likely this – and other reported consequences of no deal – really are.

How is our water linked to the EU?

Britain’s water sector is ruled by legislation and standards set by the UK government and regulators, the European Union, and global bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In terms of our water quality, the public water supply is governed by national regulations derived from the EU Drinking Water Directive (the standards of which are based on WHO advice). This directive is transposed into UK law through primary legislation and regulations specific to each of the devolved nations.

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OK so we have laws – why would anything change if we left without a deal?

Well, chemicals used to purify water in the UK are imported from Europe. So the danger is that  – if we leave without a deal – a delay in importing these chemicals amid border chaoscould mean turning off the taps. The vital chemicals are referred in the leak to the Mail as “just in time” products that cannot be stockpiled as they are too volatile – so they have to arrive on time to be used, rather than saved up.

Is this true?

According to the government leak, we import crucial chemicals, some of which we cannot stockpile, and it’s also highly likely that no deal would cause problems at borders. But as a former Cabinet Office source puts it to me, this tapwater story is more about Gove and the cabinet’s Brexit politics than the water industry. And a Whitehall source quoted in the Mail’s story cautioned, “This is Project Fear on steroids but it has worked on the cabinet”. There is a sense that the picture of hospitals, schools and households suddenly running dry has more basis in politics than reality at the moment.

What’s the water industry saying?

Like pretty much all industries, it prefers stability and certainty – in terms of regulation for protecting water quality, but also in terms of importing goods and services from abroad. Tariffs or frustrated trade could mean we have trouble importing the chemicals we need.

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Over the past 25 years, the quality of our drinking water has improved to be “world-class” – according to the water service provider membership body Water UK – through working in a business environment shaped by both UK and European policy.

So yeah, they’re probably not thrilled about Brexit. In fact, I found it surprisingly difficult to get experts on-the-record on this topic. The consensus seemed to be that the running-dry scenario was probably unlikely – but no one wanted to say so as they know how damaging Brexit will be even if we won’t immediately run out of tap water.

A Water UK spokesperson said: “Similar to other industries, we have been assessing the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit and we are taking the necessary actions to minimise disruption to customers and our water supply.”