Action ‘needed now’ to improve drought resilience

There is a significant and growing risk of severe drought impacts arising from climate change and population growth, and concerted action is needed now to build resilience of supply, a report by Water UK has concluded.

The first-of-its kind research modelled the possible effects of climate change, population growth, environmental protection measures and trends in water use to produce a wide range of future scenarios. It deployed new modelling techniques to look 50 years ahead across the whole of England and Wales.

The results suggest that, in some scenarios, we are facing longer, more frequent and more acute droughts than previously thought. Drier areas of the country (the south and east of England) face a higher risk of more severe droughts than those experienced in the past, while English regions further to the north and west are also more exposed to the prospect of future water shortages.

The modelling shows that extensive measures to manage demand as well as enhance supplies of water are needed to contain the risk of drought. Demand management initiatives – including the promotion of more efficient water use in homes and businesses, improved building standards and widespread use of smart metering – must be used in tandem with ambitious plans on the supply side, such as moving more water from one region to another through existing waterways and new pipelines, building new reservoirs, treating more water for re-use and building desalination plants to make use of sea water.

The report’s authors conclude that, by adopting a step-by-step approach, the additional cost of making the supply of water more resilient to severe droughts would be equivalent to about £4 per annum per household. By contrast, the impact on the economy of inaction could be very high, costing an estimated £1.3 billion per day during the most widespread situations of severe drought modelled in the report.

Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: “Since privatisation, the industry has invested billions of pounds in securing the nation’s precious water resources, but we all need to do more in the face of current and future pressures on those resources. We are publishing this ground-breaking research today so that water companies, government, regulators and other agencies can together raise their game in how we plan to keep homes and businesses supplied over the next fifty years.”

Anglian Water regulation director Jean Spencer, who chaired the project, said: “The threat of drought is already with us – were it not for the unprecedented rainfall in the spring of 2012, we might have suffered significant problems with water supply that summer. This is world class research that will support companies and government in planning for resilient water resources in the future.”

The industry research was funded by Water UK and was led by a steering group, comprising water companies, regulators and UK and Welsh Government representatives. The research was conducted by a team including Atkins, Mott Macdonald, Nera Economic Consulting, HR Wallingford and the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute.


A version of this story first appeared on WWTonline.