England at serious risk of water shortage by 2040, MPs warn

England is at "serious risk" of running out of water within 20 years because of policymakers', regulators' and the water sector's failure to tackle leakage and align with net-zero.

Nearly half the global population are already living in potential water-scarce areas 

Nearly half the global population are already living in potential water-scarce areas 

That is according to a demining new report from the Public Accounts Committee, as part of its inquiry into the UK’s water sector and infrastructure.

The report reveals that around one-fifth of the volume of water used in the UK every day is lost to leakage – a proportion which has not decreased within the past 20 years.  Ofwat is predicting leakage to reduce by 16% within the next five years, but the Committee is not confident that water firms are undertaking the appropriate measurement and investment to meet this target.

“No one organisation has got a thorough grip on dealing with this issue and driving the change necessary,” the report states.

If this issue is not addressed as a matter of urgency, the Committee warns, England is likely to face sweeping water shortages within two decades as the population grows, urbanisation continues and the climate warms.

On the latter piece, the Committee also expressed concerns about the water sector’s approach to the UK’s 2050 net-zero target. August 2019 saw the UK’s nine major water and sewage services firms commit to reaching net-zero by 2030 and, shortly after, the Environment Agency followed suit. While praising this ambition, the Committee is concerned that water companies will need to build new energy-intensive infrastructure as they modernize, and that the sector has not developed a clear roadmap for addressing the resulting emissions.

Also of concern is the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change which is already ‘baked-in’. Water UK has told MPs that it is working with Defra, the EA, Ofwat and all major companies to address this challenge.

“It is very hard to imagine, in this country, turning the tap and not having enough clean, drinkable water come out - but that is exactly what we now face,” Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hiller MP said.

“Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we’ve got the last 20 years: nowhere. Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act. We look now to the Department to step up and make up for lost time before it’s too late.”

Stemming the flow

The Public Accounts Committee report offers a string of recommendations designed to address the UK’s present water challenges while building future resilience.

In order to address leakage, Defra is urged to publish annual league tables ranking water companies on their efforts to tackle the problem against their own targets. This move would boost accountability and should be completed by the end of 2020.

The Committee also wants Defra to “urgently develop, with adequate funding” a public engagement campaign to reduce water consumption on a per-capita basis. It heard evidence that the EA’s ‘Love Water’ campaign has not yet received any confirmed funding from water companies or the government, leading to poor reach. It also heard that slow progress has been made on Defra’s work around personal water budgets, launched late last year, largely due to the general election, Brexit and Covid-19. Recent research revealed that three-quarters of Brits are unaware of the UK’s water scarcity challenges.

On climate change specifically, the Committee wants a letter from Ofwat within three months, outlining how it will ensure that water companies are measuring and addressing the full scope of their carbon emissions. Some companies have already laid out their own net-zero roadmaps, detailing specific targets around renewable energy generation, tree planting, energy efficiency improvements – but further clarity on a sector-wide basis would be welcomed by MPs.

Sarah George


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