Water for homes

There is a flaw in national policy. Water resources should not be dismissed as merely an environmental issue, writes Barrie Clarke of Water UK.

Sustainable Communities: Homes for All is the rousing title of a five-year Government plan published in January. The proposals for more houses in southeast England have been controversial since publication in 2003. One criticism is that they could cause a "water crisis".

Being used as a political weapon, even indirectly, is unwelcome to the water industry. And it is unjustified because, on current evidence, it is wrong to suggest that companies will be unable to meet demand. This is a matter of credibility. But the debate also highlights a flaw in national policy.

Water resources can no longer be kept in a box labelled "environment". There is a growing case for treating it as a mainstream economic issue.

Credibility and supply
Powerful trends are affecting supply. Pollution has degraded water sources. Natural storage has been eroded to create farmland. Planning policy has allowed more concrete, faster run-off and lower recharge of groundwater. New weather patterns are expected to bring wetter winters and drier summers, which will reduce the overall volume of available water.

The quality of surface water for summer abstraction will be lower. We shall need more winter storage. Climate change threatens groundwater too. More violent rainfall means more surface flooding, less infiltration, higher temperatures, more evaporation and transpiration and less recharge.

On the other hand, the policy response is under way. EU farm policy, moving from
production subsidy to environmental stewardship, will cut pollution. So will the Government's "catchment-sensitive farming" programme. The Water Framework Directive will improve all water bodies - especially abstraction points for public supply. Integrated river-basin management will communicate the benefit of looking after local assets.

Demand will go on increasing. Look at demographic change. One-person households are predicted to account for 35% of the UK total by 2021. This is worrying because Thames Water research shows average per-capita consumption rising from 124 litres per person per day to 201 litres as household size falls from six to one. The population drift to the relatively crowded Southeast will continue. Customers' expectations will grow with their lifestyles and appreciation of plentiful water.

Again, though, there are encouraging signs. Waterwise, an industry-funded initiative, is building an economic case for deep cuts in demand. A national Water Savings Group (Government, regulators, water companies and customers) plans to influence policy in favour of lower household use by a hitherto untried strategy - collaboration. Industry is getting the message. For instance, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reports that water needed for each vehicle has fallen from 6,200 to 3,400 litres in three years.

Economic issue
So water shortage need not hold up economic development. By assessing costs and benefits and working within environmental limits, it should be possible to provide
sustainable solutions. However, there is an important proviso. Sustainable prosperity requires that economic-development plans and water-resource plans go hand in hand.
Everyone works hard to make this happen but at present there is no guarantee. The obvious way is to integrate water more fully into economic policy. This does not mean that the water sector is misplaced in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In fact, the case for integration was made three years ago in a landmark water vision - by DEFRA. Water will always be at the heart of environment policy, but for that reason it is too easily pigeon-holed and seen through the peripheral lens of environmentalism.

The need for a fresh approach became pressing when sustainable communities made headlines for the wrong reasons. It was obvious that the Government had not consulted on water services, and infrastructure gaps could delay the project.

Since then, water companies have been more involved. Homes for All speaks of adequate water services, sustainable construction, and water saving devices. Yet, in an economic development plan, water still appears in a mainly environmental context. Would it not make sense to see it alongside other essentials such as transport and energy?

It has often been pointed out that the root meaning of economics (oikonomia in Greek - managing the resources of the home) covered what we now see as environment issues. Sustainable development needs water-resources management home again as a mainstream economic issue.

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