The chief executive of the Environment Agency has used dramatic language to describe the threat of water shortages caused by climate change. Katey Pigden asks if he was right to do so

A rousing speech from Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, has put water efficiency back on the national agenda.

His use of the words “jaws of death” may have had something to do with that – part of a stark warning that England could be just 25 years away from not having enough water to meet demand.

Delivering his keynote address at the annual Waterwise conference in London on 19 March – which was four-times larger than last year – he said water companies all identified climate change as “the biggest operating risk” in their business plans for PR19.

“It’s not just almost every scientist in the world who believes [climate change] is happening, but hardnosed companies that are making investment decisions based on their belief that it’s a ‘Thing’. They would not be spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year on greater resilience in the face of something for which there was not compelling evidence,” he said.

Several water companies were affected by the extreme weather events of last year – the Beast from the East and subsequent rapid thaw, followed by one of the hottest and driest summers on record – so the water sector is all too aware of the impact of climate change on “business as usual”.

Sir James said the second thing you find in all the water companies’ PR19 business plans is a chart, “known by some as the jaws of death – though that’s not what they call it in the glossy business plans”.

“This chart draws two lines across the X/Y axis. The first shows predicted water demand over the next several decades in the region the water company serves. In all the water company plans this line goes up, as more people, homes, and businesses appear over time.

“The second line shows the water that will be available to supply those needs: and in all the water company plans this line goes down, as the effects of climate change kick in.”

He added: “And somewhere out along the timeline, usually around the 20-25 years from now mark, those lines cross. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the jaws of death – the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs.

“Self-evidently, avoiding something called the jaws of death is by and large the sensible thing to do.”

Climate change

Sir James went on to outline the impact climate change is likely to have in years to come. Last year’s heatwave could become the norm as summers become hotter and drier. By 2040 more than half of UK summers are expected to exceed 2003 temperatures, he said. This will mean more water shortages, higher drought risks and less predictable rainfall.

“By 2050 the amount of water available could be reduced by 10-15 per cent, with some rivers seeing 50 per cent to 80 per cent less water during the summer months,” he said. On present projections many parts of the country will face “significant water deficits” by 2050, particularly in the South East where much of the population lives.

And by that time the UK population is expected to rise from 67 million to 75 million. More people means greater demand for water, and the environment will need more water too, the EA chief advised.

Sir James warned that chalk streams, which are “extremely rare” – most are in England – are “under threat”. Chalk streams are “geologically vital” and support a rich biodiversity such as trout, voles, otters and kingfishers. “They are under threat because their aquifers currently provide drinking water for millions in southeast England, and that is unsustainable in the long term,” Sir James said.

The Environment Agency is working with water companies to reduce – or in some cases end – abstraction from chalk streams.

Both sides of the equation

In the face of water scarcity, said Sir James, “both sides of the equation” must be tackled – reducing demand and increasing supply. “The good news is we can do both.”

He suggested demand can be reduced by tackling leaks, more water metering, sustainable drainage, new building regulations to drive greater water efficiency, and finding ways to cut the amount of water we use.

“We will need to see more water transfers between regions from areas of water surplus to areas of deficit. There’s scope to do much more here: currently only 4 per cent of water supplies are transferred between individual water companies,” he said.

In his speech, Sir James also said more desalination plants will have to be built – he described Thames Water’s Beckton plant as “impressive”. “And most controversially of all,” he said, “we will need to build new reservoirs.

“Creating some of that new infrastructure will be challenging: we have not built a new reservoir in the UK for decades, largely because clearing all the planning and legal hurdles necessary is so difficult and local opposition so fierce.”

But he said that while there will be “political challenges”, there should be “less difficulty” over the economics. “That’s because the investment needed to build the infrastructure we need to increase our resilience is modest compared with the cost of not doing it,” he said.

Derek Stork, chairman of the Group Against Reservoir Development, said it is “deeply disappointing” the head of the Environment Agency is backing the idea of new reservoirs.

He argues that the Environment Agency opposed new reservoirs in a 2010 public inquiry and that there are a “number” of alternative options such as increasing water transfers and reducing leakage.

The group is campaigning against Thames Water’s proposed “mega-reservoir” near Abingdon.

Stork added: “Reservoirs like the one proposed in Abingdon are hugely expensive, harm the environment and are completely unnecessary. They are also not drought resistant, and so are an especially poor solution when looking at ways to ensure water security in the event of climate change.”

But the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) supports the approach suggested by the Environment Agency. At Water UK’s city conference last year, Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC, said the cost of building a new reservoir would be “peanuts” compared with that of a drought.

The theme of the Waterwise conference this year was the pathway to ambitious water efficiency – reducing individual water consumption to 100 litres a day or less.

Nicci Russell, the managing director of Waterwise, said it was “fantastic” to have Sir James Bevan put “all this oxygen” around the subject of water efficiency.

Commenting on his speech, a spokesperson from the NIC added: “England faces the very real prospect of drought over the next 30 years, so we welcome the Environment Agency’s call for decisive action now to change our whole approach to water management.

“We’re also pleased Sir James highlighted the need for new reservoirs and water transfers, which are key elements in building a more resilient approach that we have recommended, alongside tackling leakage. “We look forward to seeing these themes reflected in the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy later this year.”

The NIC’s 2018 report on national infrastructure needs highlighted the risk of extreme drought, supported the twin track approach of investing to enhance supply and reduce demand, and noted that the investment cost of resilience (£21 billion) is roughly half the cost of an extreme drought (£40 billion).

A 2016 report produced by the water companies, the Environment Agency and others came to the same conclusion: that investing in water resilience was both affordable and had cost benefits. That report revealed that although a severe drought would cost each household more than £100, the annual cost per household of the investment that would greatly reduce the risk was only £4.

The Environment Agency said it is working with the government to set the “right level of ambition” for water efficiency.

Sir James said: “We are particularly interested in specific ideas on how we could get this country to Waterwise’s ambitious target of 100 litres per person per day.”

It is also working with water companies to ensure business plans for 2020-25 reflect the investment and measures needed to ensure supply can meet demand in the future.

He said: “Avoiding the jaws of death is going to have to be a joint effort. We will only succeed if we all work together.”

He argued the government deserves credit for its 25-year environment plan, and added: “The water companies deserve more credit than they sometimes get. They deliver safe, clean water, day in day out. They do it reliably and at a price almost everyone can afford. They invest billions of pounds in improving the environment.

“They are causing fewer serious pollution incidents than ever before. They work well with the Environment Agency as their environmental regulator. They all have water efficiency retrofit and engagement programmes far more ambitious than ever before.”

But he said the water companies will be the “first to agree” that they need to do more to boost public trust.

“They need to continue to bear down on pollution incidents, redouble their efforts to fix leakage, and focus on building long-term water resilience through active planning, collaboration with others and significant infrastructural investments. Some of the companies are doing this. But not all are, or not to a sufficient degree or with sufficient pace.”

Sir James confessed at the end of his speech that he stuck “jaws of death” in the title and his opening lines simply to get people’s attention. “I hope it worked,” he said. “On one level it’s just a dumb name for a graph where two lines cross. But on another, it’s real.”

Provocative language

But in a session of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee the following day (20 March) to scrutinise the new water national policy statement (NPS), chair Neil Parish MP criticised the way the former diplomat presented his case. The Devon MP accused Sir James of hyping up the threat that England could run out of water.

He said: “Using such provocative language is not the role of the Environment Agency… He can’t go out and make these statements unless he can back them up.”

Water minister Therese Coffey, who was giving evidence to the committee, defended the agency chief executive. She said she was not responsible for Sir James’ choice of words, and said the agency and Defra are “separate bodies”.

Sir James had been seeking to raise public awareness of the threat to water resources unless action is taken, she said: “If we don’t there will be pressure on our water.”

However, she expressed confidence that the actions the government is taking, including the production of the NPS to facilitate water infrastructure projects, will ward off the dire scenario presented by the EA chief.

She said: “We are not going to run out of water by 2050 because we are going to take action.”

To steal another phrase from Sir James: “We need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea. We need everyone to take responsibility for their own water usage.”

Strong words are one thing but the time for just talking is over. Action must be taken now to protect future resources. Investment, infrastructure and personal responsibility for water use will all have a part to play.