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Advertorial: in association with WSP

“We don’t want to run out of water”: tackling the UK’s drought problem

As we face increased flooding and heatwaves, investment in our water infrastructure is urgently needed.

The UK might colloquially be known as a “wet” country, but as global temperatures rise, drought is becoming as serious as flooding. In recent years we have seen heatwaves like never before, while storms and flash floods have caused significant damage, particularly in coastal areas.

At a time when water companies are coming under intense scrutiny, it has never been more important to invest in our water infrastructure, much of which dates to the 19th century and now struggles to cope with extreme weather events.

“Securing our future water supply is absolutely essential for society as a whole,” says Andrea Gysin, water strategic advisory team lead at engineering and environmental consultancy WSP. “At the other end of the spectrum, flooding is extremely environmentally, economically and socially costly. So effectively managing water is critical.”

The water sector is currently facing multiple challenges, with several companies experiencing serious financial issues. A drive to keep customers’ bills low alongside a need to pay shareholders has led to underinvestment in crucial infrastructure, such as transport and storage systems and sewage overflow systems. In the latter case, this has led to companies discharging sewage into rivers and the sea to keep systems running. In 2022 this totalled 301,091 occurrences, according to data from the Environment Agency. Many of these spills are due to the system’s design, which prevents sewage from flooding homes and businesses, but which is now under increased pressure from climate change and population growth.

Some progress has been made in addressing its problems. In April, the regulator Ofwat announced £1.6bn funding for a range of projects that aim to improve water quality, increase climate change resilience, and protect biodiversity. This includes £1.1bn to tackle storm overflows and reduce annual sewage spills by 10,000 instances, £400m to protect against drought and flooding, and £160m to protect natural ecosystems. This is part of a larger £50bn investment that English and Welsh water companies are making between 2020 and 2025.

The government also recently published its Plan for Water, which promises to ensure “clean and plentiful water” by improving system management, delivering new infrastructure and addressing water supply and demand issues. Alongside the £1.6bn investment, proposals include delivering regional catchment action plans, a Water Restoration Fund, bigger pollution penalties, improving water efficiency in homes and fining companies for not tackling leakage. Since 2021, it has also been mandatory for water companies to monitor their storm overflows and for the Environment Agency to publish this data publicly for transparency, with monitoring increasing from 10 per cent in 2015 to 91 per cent in 2022.

The UK’s water infrastructure was not designed to interconnect regionally or nationally, unlike electricity or gas. The lack of a national water grid means that highly populated areas, such as cities, are more prone to drought as demand tends to exceed supply. London and the south-east are also the driest parts of the country.

[See also: Meet the workers that maintain the UK’s solar power]

To ensure everywhere has a steady supply, finding ways to connect infrastructure within and between regions is one solution. WSP has carried out a feasibility study with Affinity Water and Severn Trent Water to transport water from the Midlands to London via the Grand Union Canal. This would transfer highly treated wastewater from Minworth Sewage Treatment Works in the Midlands to Affinity Water in Hertfordshire and north-west London, reusing water rather than drawing more from the natural environment.

Affinity Water currently gets its supply from groundwater (found beneath the Earth’s surface, such as in aquifers) and surface water (found in bodies of water such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs). Reducing the use of these sources helps to preserve rivers and chalk aquifers, which play a vital role in natural ecosystems.  

“This is a great example of using existing infrastructure for a new purpose,” says Gysin. “Improving connectivity at that regional scale won’t get us to a national water grid, but it will dramatically increase the resilience of our water supplies whilst simultaneously reducing abstraction from sensitive sources such as chalk streams.”

Natural solutions such as sustainable urban drainage systems (Suds) can also be used to divert rainwater away from the sewage system and back into the natural environment, boosting biodiversity and improving air quality, while reducing the risk of sewers overflowing during heavy rainfall. These come in different forms, such as permeable surfaces, green roofs and ponds.

On the more technological side, smart water butts can be installed to collect rainwater and reuse it for other purposes such as watering gardens or cleaning. They empty ahead of a rainfall event so that they reduce the flow to the sewer, avoiding sewers being inundated.

A shift towards a “circular economy” and “climate-independent” water sources is crucial to sustaining the UK’s supply, says David Harris, group drought and resilience director at the water utility company Pennon Group. For example, South West Water – owned by Pennon Group – is building a desalination plant in south Cornwall, making use of its coastal location to collect seawater, treat it and turn it into freshwater for drinking or agricultural use. “It’s not responsible for us to be at the mercy of a changing climate, with longer dry heat and less reliable rainfall,” he says.

There is also a need for water companies to collaborate more to share facilities and shift to regional-scale water planning. South West Water is part of the West Country Water Resource Group alongside Bristol Water, Wessex Water, the Environment Agency and Natural England. Together, they are investigating several water-sharing initiatives, including a recycling scheme, new reservoirs and transferring water between regions.

Consumers can also play a role in reducing water demand in the first place. In 2021, the government set an aim of reducing average personal water consumption to 110 litres per person per day by 2050. Jim Hall, a climate professor at the University of Oxford and commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission, says there is “still a long way to go” but there are several practical solutions the government could implement to help meet this target.

This includes making it mandatory for white goods devices – such as washing machines, toilets, dishwashers and taps – to be labelled with water efficiency ratings, which would help consumers make more informed choices. Variable water tariffs would also disincentivise excessive use, Hall suggests: most people currently pay a flat rate but this could be changed so that the 110-litre limit costs a basic rate, and then bills would get higher above this.  

Smart water meters could also be made compulsory. These show people how much water they use in real time, and could encourage households to use less, as well as indicate issues such as leaking toilets. They differ from energy pre-payment meters in that “you can’t be cut off from water”, says Hall. “A meter simply provides you with more information to help you adjust your behaviour.”

Pennon Group’s Harris adds that water companies should have more involvement in the planning process for new building developments, residential or otherwise, to ensure they will be able to receive an adequate water supply. Hosepipe ban legislation should also be updated, he says, to accommodate for new consumer trends, such as the use of hot tubs in rental properties.

Multiple solutions are needed to improve the resilience of the UK’s water systems, in the form of government legislation, sector action and consumer behaviour. “In 2018, Cape Town faced being the first major city to run out of water,” says WSP’s Gysin. “We don’t want to find ourselves in that situation. The UK’s water companies and regulators working together to develop infrastructure is an important step in securing our water supply, but it’s not the only trick in the box. We also need to drive behaviour change to reduce demand.”

[See also: Who in Labour gets climate and nature?]

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