Households face a high risk of having their water cut off in times of severe drought, unless utilities slash leakages and build a new grid to transport supplies around the country, the government’s infrastructure watchdog has warned.

The National Infrastructure Commission, in a new report published today, urges the government to ‘immediately’ start adopting a twin track approach to boost supplies while cutting demand.

It recommends that Ofwat should launch a competition by the end of 2019, alongside its upcoming Price Review of the industry, to ensure the provision of at least 1,300 million litres per day (Ml/day) through a national network that would transfer water from areas of surplus to those that need it.

Transfers, which currently only make up about 4% of total water supply, could provide about 700 Ml/day more capacity and increase the system’s overall adaptability, according to the report.  It says an independent national framework and strengthened regional approaches may be needed to deliver infrastructure on this scale, which goes ‘well beyond’ water companies’ current plans.

The report also says the provision of new infrastructure, like reservoirs and desalination plants in a wider range of places, is needed to reduce costs.

And the commission urges the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to set an objective for the water industry to halve leakage by 2050, with Ofwat agreeing five-year commitments for each company. The report says that around 2,900 Ml/day is lost as a result of leakage, on which progress at tackling this has ‘stalled’ since the 2000s.

And to improve monitoring of consumption, the NIC recommends that Defra should allow companies the option of implementing compulsory metering beyond water stressed areas by the 2030s.

These plans should deliver additional supply and demand reduction of at least 4,000 Ml per day.

The report says that there is a one in four chance, over the next 30 years, that large numbers of households will have water supplies cut off for an extended period because of severe drought unless the action it recommends is not taken.

Sir John Armitt, chairman of the NIC, said: “If we are to avoid our taps running dry, in times of extreme drought, we need the government to act on our recommendations without delay.

Responding to the report, Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: “The report backs up the water sector’s ground-breaking research in 2016 about the growing risks to water supplies due to climate change and population growth.

“Water companies have invested heavily over the past three decades to improve services and continue to invest £8 billion each year, and we need to sustain that and encourage much more efficient use of water.

“Everyone needs to play their part, and companies – working closely with government, regulators and customers – are currently developing their next five-year business plans to address the pressures we all face.”

‘Preparing for a drier future’ is a key element of the NIC’s National Infrastructure Assessment, due to be published in July.

Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said: “We are challenging water companies to be bold in their ambition to secure a resilient water supply for current and future generations. It would never be acceptable for customers’ taps to run dry.

“The report echoes our long-held view that the water industry needs to show much more ambition in tackling leakage. Consumers’ own motivation to save water can be dampened if they don’t think their water company is pulling its weight in reducing leakage and some poor performers are letting the industry down.”

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