England could be just 25 years away from not having enough water to meet demand and is facing the “jaws of death”, the chief executive of the Environment Agency has warned.
Delivering his keynote speech at the annual Waterwise conference in London this morning (19 March) Sir James Bevan said water companies all identified climate change as “the biggest operating risk” in their business plans for PR19.
He outlined that water companies also included charts in their plans predicting water demand and anticipated supply over the next few decades.
As demand rises and supply falls as the “effects of climate change kicks in” he suggests the country will be in the “jaws of death” when the lines of the x and y axis meet in around 20-25 years.
“Avoiding something called the jaws of death is by and large the sensible thing to do,” he said.
Sir Bevan said that in the face of water scarcity “both sides of the equation” must be tackled – reducing demand and increasing supply.
He said the “good news” is we can do both. Sir Bevan suggested demand can be reduced by tackling leakage, more water metering, sustainable drainage systems, new building regulations to drive greater water efficiency, and finding ways to cut down the amount of water we use.
He added: “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 also said more desalination plants will have to built – as he referenced Thames Water’s “impressive one” in Beckton.
“And most controversially of all, we will need to build new reservoirs,” he said.
“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 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.
This is something the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has also argued previously. 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 to a drought.
The Environment Agency recently became a supporter of Waterwise.
The environmental regulator said it is working with the government to set the “right level of ambition” for water efficiency.
Sir Bevan 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 the 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.”
And he argued the government deserves credit for its 25-year environment plan.
He 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 in particular on the issue we are discussing today: 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.”
The Waterwise conference this year is themed around the pathway to ambitious water efficiency – getting to 100 litres a day and lower.
Responding to Sir James’ speech, a spokesperson for the NIC said: “England faces the very real prospect of drought over the next thirty 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.”