Looming drought should spur investment

It's only just turned spring but the south and east of England is already in drought, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with some parts drier than at any point since the famous heatwave of 1976. Consequently, many consumers are already being hit with hosepipe bans and farmers are warning about the impact on next year's crops of restricting the amount of water they can abstract from rivers over the summer.

It’s not a happy prospect, especially since the news comes just weeks before average water bills are set to rise by 5%. But the reality is that it takes a lot of investment to keep us all in showers and cups of tea, let alone jacuzzis and car washes.  It’s also Ofwat that sets the pricing framework, not the water companies, and the regulator recognises that we have to keep investing.

After a lot of neglect throughout the 20th century, we now have some of the best water services in the world, thanks to £90bn invested between 1990 and 2010. Between April 2010 and March 2015, Ofwat wants the industry to invest another £22bn, and the looming water shortage highlights the need for this investment, rather than negating it.

Part of the problem in the south east of England stems from an over-reliance on aquifer stocks. Over 75% of water consumed in the region originates from aquifers, which are now at dangerously low levels. With organisations such as the Institute of Civil Engineers calling for the introduction of more creative ways of conserving water, including grey water systems, compulsory water meters and even permeable pavements, companies should also be looking at how to make the most of our precious resources.

As such, leakage reduction remains a major priority. Leakage figures across the UK have so far remained stubbornly at between 15 and 25%, equating to some 3,300 megalitres per day, so there’s still huge scope for improvement.

Whilst it’s encouraging to spot water companies using Twitter to ask their customers to keep an eye out for leaks, it’s also slightly worrying too. The amount of water lost from a given flaw depends on the water pressure and the length of time taken to fix it, so it’s crucial to have the metering technologies in place to track down problems fast, rather than relying on the diligence of the general public.

There is technology available that can not only identify where leaks are happening, but also spot situations where they are likely to happen too. District metering schemes, a long time tool in the fight against leakage, have now been joined by smart network technology, which monitors parameters such as pressure and flow to identify potential weak spots in a water distribution system where leaks are likely to occur.

Investment in these techniques is certainly more practical than grand schemes like piping water en masse from the soggy northwest to the parched southeast – an idea most recently championed by London mayor Boris Johnson. That idea has been a dead duck since 2006, when the Environment Agency concluded that better regional water conservation measures could be as effective for a fraction of the cost.

Any increase in prices is always going to be unpopular with the public, especially at a time when household incomes are already stretched. While such rises may be a bitter pill to swallow, at least we can still wash it down with a glass of water. If we fail to make the investments needed in safeguarding today’s water stocks, then in future we may not even be able to take this basic luxury for granted.

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