By all means protect water resources, but don’t soak the poor to do it

Hosepipe bans are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the severity of the UK’s potential water shortages.

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The government needs to take “decisive and prompt action” to guarantee the UK’s water security according to a major new report from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE).

HosepipeIn the report, ICE says the recent droughts have been a ‘wake up call’ for the UK but the urgency and severity of the UK’s potential water shortages are still not properly understood. It rates our current water security as “level 4” on a 1-10 scale.

Chair of the ICE water panel, Michael Norton, said:

“We are a populous nation facing a growing gap between what we can supply and what our water users need. Sadly it’s only when hose-pipe bans are inflicted on us that the public has any glimpse of this reality.

“Commonly thought of ‘rainy’ areas won’t be like that in the future – rainfall will be more varied, both in terms of time and location – so relying on very large reservoirs in only one or two places will no longer be effective.”

The report recommends building more smaller reservoirs and a renewed effort to conserve water in the home by introducing compulsory water meters.

ICE argues that with the UK population expected to increase by 10 million by 2035 urgent action is needed, however it calculates that with the proper measures, security of supply can be “out of danger – at water security level 8 or 9” – by 2025.

The report also warns that “the single biggest problem” in securing water supplies is cost, or “the low value we place on water”.

Norton added:

“The UN has rightly stated that water for health and hygiene is a human right and should be affordable to the whole of society, but it makes up only a small proportion of our direct water use (less than 15%). Everything else is discretionary and should be charged as such.”

Translation? Charge the public more for water services.


See also:

After months of denial, an admission flood defences face massive cuts 14 Feb 2011

Why don’t Clegg and Cameron think clean water and sanitation are human rights? 5 Aug 2010

Water dilemma 9 Jul 2010


While ICE’s expertise in engineering solutions to the changing water fall patterns we face is beyond reproach, the social impact of its recommendations raise real questions.

Earlier this year the Joseph Rowntree Trust warned that up to four million people are already in danger of falling into water poverty – defined as households spending more than 3 per cent of their income on water.

Rather than penalising poorer households by charging for consumption, the underlying problem is that 20 million water customers already experiencing hosepipe ban in ‘water stressed’ areas are mainly clustered in southern and eastern England – where there is substantially less rainfall to begin with.

Unfortunately, these also tend to be the more economically dynamic parts of the country with growing populations.

Any strategic solution to protecting water security therefore needs to explore ways of rebalancing our economy to take pressure away from those parts of the country with limited natural resources.

It also means water companies, the Environment Agency and industry regulator Ofwat need to become better at predicting and reacting to weather and population changes. Also, our planning system needs reforming so we build key infrastructure where it is needed most.

In a curious quirk of scheduling, the Environment Agency also waded into the discussion about water resources today. The agency revealed that rivers, reservoirs and groundwater sources have recovered following record rainfall in April and early May which may lead to an earlier lifting of hosepipe bans in those water-stressed areas where they are currently in operation.

A final decision is expected before the end of the month.


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