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'Water poverty' the new 'fuel poverty' for vulnerable households as we attempt to tackle impacts of climate change

A new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has highlighted how low-income households are at particular risk of 'water poverty', as water metering and differential pricing are deployed by agencies to incentivise greater water efficiency, in the bid to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Vulnerability to heatwaves and drought: adaptation to climate change’ by a team from AEA and the University of Surrey explores how examples of climate change adaptation in the South West of England may impact on vulnerable groups in society.

The report found that:

  • Water is becoming increasingly scarce as a result of climate change and increased consumer demand.
  • Water companies are moving away from flat rate fees to new charging models that bill customers steadily higher prices according to how much water they use.
  • This could create affordability problems for some low-income households and could lead to 'water poverty' in some cases – where households spend 3% or more of their income on water bills.
  • Water affordability is a particular problem for the south-west where bills are on average 43% higher than the rest of the country.
  • An estimated four million households are currently 'water poor' and this situation is likely to worsen as water bills are set to rise 5% per year for some customers.
  • Low-income households unable to reduce their water use are more vulnerable to differential water charging, particularly those who do not qualify for support schemes.
  • Schemes to support vulnerable households may help to improve water efficiency while providing affordable water to all, but not all households are eligible and drop-out rates can be high because of complex renewal processes.
  • The authors conclude that decision-makers need to aim for ‘affordable water efficiency’
  • The report also looks at the social dimension of vulnerability to heatwaves

Lead report author Magnus Benzie from AEA commented:

The issue of ‘water poverty’ – just like fuel poverty – is extremely important, especially as we start to look into the future and consider how climate change is going to impact society.

We currently waste a lot of water, so on one level it makes sense to encourage greater efficiency by charging people depending on how much water they use. But some tariffs can put unfair pressure on households that cannot reduce their water consumption, either because of household size, medical needs or an inability to invest in water efficient appliances. We looked at some of the innovative schemes that water companies are trialling to create incentives for efficient water use whilst providing affordable water to all. The answers are out there – decision-makers need to aim for affordable water efficiency as part of a long term, socially just adaptation strategy.”

JRF Programme Manager Josh Stott added,

Climate change and how we adapt to it will impact upon disadvantaged groups in different ways. This report highlights the need for policy makers and agencies to consider these social justice issues when preparing and building resilience to climate change, to improve the outcomes for vulnerable people."

This is the first report to be published from JRF's Climate Change and Social Justice programme. The programme seeks to explore how climate change and adaptation policies are experienced by different social groups in the UK.

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