Parts of England could run short of water within 20 years, NAO warns
Unsustainable water abstraction processes and infrastructure, compounded by climate change and population growth, will result in parts of southern England running out of water within 20 years.
That is the stark warning made by the National Audit Office (NAO) to the UK Government, in its latest water supply and demand management report.
The report warns that the amount of water available for abstraction nationally each day will fall more than one billion litres by 2045. This figure consists of 600 million litres per day lost to drier weather, and the current overconsumption of around 480 million litres per day. The NAO claims this is equivalent to 7% of the country’s total annual water supply.
This supply challenge will affect the south-east of England first and hardest, given that the region is more densely populated and experiences lower levels of annual rainfall, the report states.
As well as outlining the scale of the issue, the NAO report contains a string of calls to actions for policymakers, water companies and other businesses.
On the policy piece, the report criticises the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) for slow progress in bringing its commitment to set personal water consumption budgets to fruition. The commitment was first floated in late 2018 and brought back to the table for a three-month consultation beginning last July.
Defra is also criticised for failing to collaborate with other Government departments to implement water efficiency policies covering large public-sector users, like hospitals and schools, and private-sector users.
In the absence of these two moves, the NAO claims, water companies are being “relied upon” to get the message across that business and domestic consumers need to save water. However, average domestic consumption on a per capita basis is rising year-on-year, and the NAO report also concludes that attempts to reduce business water consumption through increased competition “have not succeeded”.
Regarding water companies specifically, the NAO acknowledges the industry’s joint commitment to net-zero by 2030 and to reduce leakage by 15% or more by 2025. But there is a risk that companies will miss the latter of these targets, the report warns, especially given issues with monitoring. The report recommends that the UK Government implements mandatory disclosures on progress and ensures that water firms have contingency plans should they miss the target.
The report comes shortly after Water UK criticised the Government's previous action and planned moves for water efficiency in homes and business.
Less recently, the Environment Agency (EA) warned Ministers and the UK public that, under existing policy frameworks, England is likely to run short of water within 25 years.