Getting sustainable water supply into the mindset

The Environment Agency (EA) has been building on its Water Resource Strategy to embed sustainability into the water supply and infrastructure of England and Wales. Natasha Wiseman asked head of water resources, Ian Barker, what a more sustainable future might look like.

The Environment Agency’s head of water resources, Ian Barker, has been leading the department in bringing together water resources and water quality, looking at the resource from source to discharge, from catchment to catchment and from wastewater to clean water.

He is all too aware of the issues facing the country: the impact of climate change and on the environment, the impact of over-abstraction on river flows, the availability of water, water quality and population growth of potentially another 20 million people by the 2050s.

“In the case of the water industry,” he explained, “you’ve got an ageing infrastructure and a regulatory regime which encourages more water to be sold and more capital investment to be made. And you’ve got the Environment Agency regulatory regime, which is inflexible and rooted in approach half a century old.”

He explains that the natural variability of the English and Welsh climate means that recent extremes of drought and flood may not yet be proven to be attributable to climate change, but, he says, “By the 2030s we will start to see a climate which is beyond the extremes we are already experiencing. Even without that it’s clear that, given today’s climate and a lot of the ways we regulate and the water industry invests, we’re struggling.”

Barker points out that the biggest supply failure for over a generation was not the result of drought, but the result of floods, referring to the loss of supply from Mythe Treatment Works in 2007. “That was a bit of a wake-up call, in the way the 1995 drought in Yorkshire was,” he says.

Barker has praise for the job the water companies have done since privatisation, overcoming a huge legacy of underinvestment at a considerable cost. But he points out that even though the utilities are getting leakage down, “Companies are still planning that by 2035, leakage will still be at about the same level as it was in 2000.”

He says that the EA is building on its Water Resources Strategy to develop an evidence base to indicate those areas where change is

needed, taking into consideration not only abstraction and discharge licenses, but the thousands of people who use water and manage land

and water in the catchment.

“One area we are keen to explore, and we set out the Water Resource Strategy, is water service companies, where companies, instead of being incentivised to sell more, will work with the customer to help them to use no more water than they reasonably need, to think of managing water in the home, with rainwater harvesting, or whatever.”

Barker says the Agency also believes that more transfers between regions need to occur to ensure security of water supply, especially in the south-east, and the EA has the power to forcibly transfer abstraction licences between water companies. “You can’t make best use of water by having eight separate companies each doing their own thing, and there’s a whole range of different models which people are talking about,” he revealed.

Barker acknowledges that the City would be nervous about changes to the regulatory model in this very ‘safe’ industry and says that changes would be thoroughly thought through. Given the scale of change needed, I asked Barker for his vision of a future sustainable water ‘utopia’.

“It would be a future where we recognise that water operates within a cycle: within catchments, within a water and sewerage company,” he explained. “And if you poke or modify one bit of that cycle it has an impact all the way round. So what I would like to see is recognition that whole of the water cycle is important and all it has to be managed. A more integrated managed approach.

I asked the more challenging question of what was needed for the UK to arrive at such a place and he gave a breakdown of five key points:

The first change, he said, was “about mindsets and culture in the industry within governments, within regulators and with customers, so viewing water differently and ensuring that it is more highly valued in a way that it isn’t at the moment.”

Secondly, the regulatory regime needs to be examined to see

whether it is delivering the right outcomes for the future: “Within the EA we are strongly of the view that the way we currently license abstractions and discharges is not fit for purpose for the future. We are looking at

ways of changing that to reflect future pressures and drive more sustainable outcome.”

Barker’s third point was about the natural cycle of water and finding ways to help each part of the cycle by doing something different in the previous part of it. He quoted EA chief executive Paul Leinster who “cannot believe that in 100 years time we will continue to be peeing in potable water.” Barker expresses exasperation that after all the effort of pumping it, treating it and delivering something you can drink, most water is used as a mechanism to convey waste. “That can’t be a sustainable approach,” he says.

Fourthly, Barker explains how important it is to invest in the right capacity and quality of assets. “Victorian engineers were incredibly farsighted and socially aware,” he said. “They weren’t building things for the sake of building them, they were thinking about the wider good for society.” He explains that as the industry invests, it needs to recognise that the assets are likely to be around for a very long time.”

Finally, where public health was the issue of the Victorian age, Barker believes carbon costs need to underpin modern day decision-making. “In all of our thinking,” he concludes, “we need to optimise rather than compromise, and again, it’s part of recognising that what we do is going to be around for a long time, so it needs to be as good as we can make it and as good as we can afford.”

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