National Infrastructure Commission
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Armitt on drought resilience: fixing leaks, reducing demand, building supply

In a comment piece for The Times’ Red Box, Commission Chair Sir John Armitt today sets out steps to help reduce the risk of future severe drought in England. The piece, reproduced below, argues for further action on identifying leaks, expanding water metering and reducing consumer demand, and building new supply and transfer infrastructure.

Sir John’s proposals reflect the recommendations made by the Commission to government in its 2018 report, Preparing for a Drier Future. The Commission’s latest appraisal of progress on improving the resilience of water networks can be found in our 2022 Infrastructure Progress Review.

Dry soil and patchy grass

This week’s forecast heatwave looks set to tip England even closer to an official drought. England faces serious risks of water shortage especially in the drier south and east, with the spectre of major restrictions on household water supplies. This needn’t be the case. Such a failure of resilience planning requires a serious look at all three angles of any utility shortage: supply, demand and distribution.

Throwing the kitchen sink at the issue is no doubt the wrong metaphor, but the fact is we need to provide an additional four billion litres of water per day by 2050 in England alone to avoid extreme drought. That’s about 22 million full bathtubs a day.

Many commentators have turned first to the need to reduce leakages. It’s understandable that many baulk at being banned from using a hosepipe when about 20 per cent of water is lost through leaks in the system.

The water sector has pledged to halve leakage rates over the next 30 years, and some progress has been made: three quarters of water companies hit their most recent targets for identifying and fixing leaks. But that means one in four failed. Ofwat, the water regulator, must continue to hold these monopolies’ feet to the fire.

However, reducing demand for water where possible will result in quicker wins. When it comes to conserving water stocks, collective people power could make a decisive difference to the extent of shortages.

The reluctance by government to commit to compulsory water metering — entirely commonplace in many other countries, and for other utilities here in the UK — shows the need for a public debate about risks, solutions and costs. By definition, not every household’s water bills would go down if there was universal metering, but at the very least it would help us understand our water usage better. A study for CCW (previously the Consumer Council for Water) last year monitored kitchen sink behaviours with video cameras and found “significant discrepancy between what consumers tell us about their kitchen sink usage and what they actually do at the kitchen sink”, with many participants unable to quantify their water usage.

Ministers accept that average use needs to fall by about 35 litres per person per day (about the amount of water a power shower uses in two-and-a-half minutes) to 110 litres, and have taken some steps to nudge us towards this goal by consulting on mandatory water efficiency labels on white goods and proposing voluntary standards for new-build homes. But little has been done to enable water companies to roll out compulsory metering beyond the areas of greatest water stress.

This approach makes the supply challenge even harder, in a context where England has a one in four chance of a very serious drought before 2050. Just as we are facing up to the problem of over-reliance on fossil fuels for energy and heating, we must wake up to the impact of using more water than we can securely replenish in the face of hotter, drier weather.

Many waterways and groundwater bodies in England are already under pressure due to water abstraction, presenting risks to biodiversity. So in addition to reducing leaks and demand, we need to invest seriously in new reservoirs and transfer infrastructure.

Water companies are working regionally on plans and are investing £470 million in projects such as Havant Thicket reservoir — the first new reservoir to be built in the southeast since the 1970s — which obtained planning permission last year. Government and the regulators need to accelerate the delivery of such schemes, assisted by recent steps to streamline the planning process for nationally significant water infrastructure projects.

In total the National Infrastructure Commission has calculated that more than £20bn of investment in new infrastructure alongside leak reduction is needed over the next 30 years.

This cost will need to be shared fairly between consumers and investors, while recognising that as monopolies, water companies cannot expect big returns. Given current pressures on household bills, Ofwat will no doubt look very carefully at the right level of returns and efficiencies for water companies when it concludes its next price review.

The alternative – of doing nothing and hoping for the best – is a likely bill of £40bn over the next 30 years for emergency maintenance and water supplies.

Our new prime minister will face some tough decisions on how to pay for better resilience to a changing climate, across multiple sectors. But the problem is not going to go away by itself.

Without sustained action on each aspect — fixing leaks, building new supply infrastructure and reducing our own demand for water — we’ll face far more challenging problems than swapping a spray gun for a watering can.


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