Water industry must consider its impact

The water industry needs to look at what it can do to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change while trying to mitigate its own impact, according to a panel of industry experts.

Severn Trent's Gren Messham, Ofwat's George Day and Ray Doughty of trade association SBWWI led the debate on climate change and the industry at SustainabilityLive! on Tuesday, and whilst coming from diverse perspectives all reached the same basic conclusion: the water industry needs to take drastic action, and fast, but is faced by a host of challenges.

"Climate change has been a high profile subject in recent months and we've just got through the hottest April on record," said Mr Messham.

"Inaction is no longer an option."

He took the controversial view that while there has been a marked improvement in water quality in the UK since 2003, thanks to extensive investment by the water companies, the industry's environmental impact on a whole has probably been negative.

"We like to build in concrete, and that means a lot of energy," he told delegates.

A complete overhaul of the UK's water treatment and transportation infrastructure was probably unrealistic in the short term, and the greatest gains in the fastest times could be made by making better use of what we already have and aiming for efficiency, he said.

Faced with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters the water companies had some tough choices ahead and were likely to be on a rocky road. The urgently needed improvements would be hard to implement, as the public pressed for a more sustainable industry but resisted the price increases needed to pay for it, he said.

Mr Day said environmental concerns were shifting the emphasis of Ofwat's role which now saw ensuring the long-term sustainable management of the water companies as important as its duty as a economic regulator.

"We look at value not just in terms of minimising costs for customers but also in terms of social and environmental impact," he said.

He said a better way of accurately measuring the industry's greenhouse gas emissions was needed and research and investment in low-carbon methods of treating water were urgently required.

Mr Doughty said that it was not a lack of innovation that was holding back developers and manufacturers of more efficient technologies, but rather the lack of financial incentives. Home owners were reluctant to install water saving devices as the payback was unattractive with water being so cheap, for example, and the water companies' reluctance to adopt drainage systems that broke the traditional mould made developers shy away from them, even if their environmental benefits were massive.

Whichever way the dice rolled, the industry would have to think hard about the way it was going said Mr Messham.

"There are no easy choices here," he said.

Sam Bond

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