CIWEM Column

In the run-up to an election CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves is concerned that the short-term thinking of politicians is putting water supplies at risk...

If water companies are not allowed to charge a realistic price for water and for dealing with pollution, they will not be able to meet their wider environmental responsibilities. I had high hopes for the Water Framework Directive (WFD). I hoped it would force politicians to understand there is an urgent job to be done in securing future water supplies that must be paid for, and I hoped politicians’ fear of voter reaction to higher water bills would be overcome by getting this message across to people. This is about water for life.

However, I fear my hopes have been dashed. I mean, when did you last see or hear any public information broadcasting on one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation of recent times? Go into a pub, or several, as I did recently, and ask the tap-room pundits how many of them have heard about the WFD and its implications for them.

I just got blank looks and you will too. So, there you have it, two things are holding back future water quality improvement at the moment – insufficient open and informed public debate between government and interested parties on implementing the WFD and pre-election politics that prevent Ofwat from allowing water companies to charge the real price of water clean-up. If we do not pay the price now, we will surely pay later.

Water has always been political – always will be, I guess. Through their control of water policy, politicians have real power to affect the quality of our lives – which must give them great pleasure. But with power comes responsibility and, in a democracy, accountability. So, given the huge pressures on our water and environmental infrastructure – and considering the upcoming requirements of the WFD – you would think now would be the time to forget past sins and invest properly in immediate and future needs. If there is no action now to halt groundwater contamination and accelerate its clean-up within 25 years, we will need to spend billions of pounds on alternatives – as well as the huge fines that would have to be paid to the EU. Given that groundwater represents around 30% of the UK’s water supply, the task of finding other options would be of Herculean proportions. In the south-east of England the situation is even more critical.

Groundwater accounts for up to 80% of water supply where, according to the Environment Agency (EA), there is likely to be a water supply deficit by 2015, which is a bit scary given this is a part of the UK that has been earmarked for massive housing development under the government’s flagship unsustainable Sustainable Development Plan. More than 500,000 new homes will pile pressure onto an already creaking infrastructure – and what about the impact of groundwater problems on river flow, wetlands and other ecosystems? It has been estimated around half of the groundwater used for public supply is affected by poor quality, mainly due to diffuse pollution from intensive farming, contaminated land, urban run-off and other bad land management practices.

The emphasis on end-of-pipe clean-up solutions has cost the public, via the water companies, dear with several hundreds of millions of pounds spent to date. It has been estimated over the next five years the cost of treatment of just one contaminant, nitrates, may be another £400M – a frightening sum of money that shows we must get smarter at land management and more sensitive to its impact on the water cycle.

So what’s the answer? Integrated land-use and water management, that is what, with water companies empowered to implement realistic charges for managing water catchments and cleaning up pollution. If politicians are to continue to call the shots on water pricing policy issues, via Ofwat and the other regulators, then they must wise-up and better understand the potentially disastrous environmental impacts of their short-term political thinking. Government must take a lead on some specific actions. It must provide adequately funded support for farmers with accredited training and guidance on best practice.

It must also increase support for organic farming and open the way to taxing pesticides and fertilisers to reduce the input of toxins to the water environment. Such support must be accompanied by strong enforcement regimes that allow stinging penalties for the ‘sinners’ and where there is evidence of malpractice. When it comes to sins it is the politicians who must surely scoop the prizes. In some kind of bizarre denial they now need to come good and connect folk with the realities of water under climate change and the regime of the WFD – and in the run-up to an election they must face the demon that is their fear of voters.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie