Neil Pendle, managing director, Waterscan Abstraction, Innovation, Water, Water networks, Water treatment, Opinion

“The industry response to the 2018 drought shows how much more needs to be done to address the issues of resilience and resource management.”

Summer 2018 was the hottest summer in England since records began back in 1910. Rainfall across the whole of the country over the three months of May to July was only 54 per cent of the long-term average, with even less falling in August – only 43 per cent of the normal amount of rain for the month.

Wet weather in November and December 2018 brought a welcome end to six consecutive months of below average rainfall in England, and the winter refill has begun in earnest despite starting slightly later than usual. While the situation has improved compared to this time last year, it is not yet back to normal in England, and the industry response to the 2018 drought shows how much more needs to be done to address the issues of resilience and resource management. When we add in the effects of climate change and population growth, our water supplies will become even more stretched in the future. If we are to meet the challenges of the future, we need to start doing things differently.

Both the drought of 2018 and the Beast from the East in the same year identified shortcomings in engagement between wholesalers and retailers in informing customers of the impacts of extreme weather. This situation is not helped by the complex landscape of interested parties, which include Defra, Ofwat, the Environment Agency, Water UK, wholesalers, retailers, MOSL, the NFU and others – and that is before we have actually started talking to consumers.

But the response to the drought of 2018 has also had some positive outcomes, most importantly in the way wholesalers and retailers can work together to the benefit of customers and the environment.

Water UK has reported on the actions taken by the water sector to protect water supplies and reduce longer-term drought risk in its briefing paper on managing water supplies during the 2018 heatwave and preparing for 2019. The Environment Agency and Defra have welcomed this activity and clarity, and most water companies are in a better position than they were at the start of 2018. The companies are taking action such as changing how they operate their sources of water, spending more on tackling leakage, promoting water efficiency, and offering additional services to customers (such as Southern Water’s free water pipe lagging and Thames Water’s home visits).

So far, so good, but we also need to ensure that engagement between wholesalers and retailers produces robust and reliable systems in the event of another incident. Work is already under way between trading parties and the industry as a whole to take the four following steps: understand the problem, raise awareness with trading parties, test systems, and engage with customers

It is the fourth step, customer engagement, that is the most challenging. Engaging with customers about resilience and resource management seems to involve two main issues.

First, while the 2018 drought was all over the news in the summer, media coverage and public awareness came to an abrupt stop with the first autumnal rain. How, then, do we make sure consumers are informed and engaged for the long term?

Second, England and Wales lost 3.1 billion litres of water every day from leakage, according to the Consumer Council for Water. Customers have a right to expect better.

Despite these issues, the drought of 2018 certainly brought home how important security of supply is to business users, particularly in water-intensive sectors. The threat of disruption has raised awareness of the issue within the self-supply retail community, and we are testing our systems in the event of drought orders and temporary usage bans. We will be working with wholesalers over the summer to make sure we are better prepared in future. This will involve providing individual sites with updates on drought and resources in their area to bring this closer to home.

We are also using the issue of resilience of supply to promote water efficiency programmes, which have been exceptionally successful in reducing water consumption as well as driving down costs. These programmes, together with the rollout of smart metering systems, will not only ensure we have great data to help with decision-making but will also drive further efficiencies.

But we need the industry to provide consistent and co-ordinated messaging on the issue too. These are important for effective communication and vital to developing a water-saving culture and help reduce the impact on customers and the environment.