UK businesses face increasing risk of drought, warns water sector

Companies are being called upon to ramp up water efficiency measures, share best practices and water consumption and open up new communication streams surrounding water conservation after a new report commissioned by water companies revealed the growing risk of drought facing the UK.

Released yesterday (13 September) – the same day that the nation recorded its warmest September day since 1911 – the report from Water UK concluded that the likelihood of droughts is increasing and called for “concerted action” to mitigate the risk and make businesses more resilient to water supply issues.

“In addition to population growth driving household demand, economic growth is likely to increase water use by businesses,” the 199-page report states. “This presents a key challenge during periods of water stress as provision of water to a larger population could mean less water available for business use.

“Improved levels of resilience could have a knock-on benefit to opportunities for trading under less severe droughts, as water companies would be less likely to restrict supplies and regulators would be less likely to impose restrictions on abstraction.”

Sustainable services

The researchers suggest promoting more efficient water use in businesses and homes through widespread smart meter rollouts, a more active distribution of water across existing pipelines for re-use and an active increase in desalination plants in order to reduce the risk of a drought. This step-by-step approach, if taken now, would only cost the equivalent of £4 a year per household, as opposed to the £1.3bn-a-day hit to the economy that could occur with further inaction, Water UK says.

Commenting on the report, Nicci Russel, director of water market regulator Ofwat, said: “The approach set out in the report could deliver real benefits to customers, the economy and the environment. Progress in water efficiency, tackling leakage and sharing water between companies are central to securing a resilient water supply, at the same time as helping to keep bills down. And companies will want to develop new and sustainable services and ways of delivering them as they consider the affordability of their plans for customers.

“The water sector is facing some critical challenges, which we need to address together. Our new regulatory approach is helping to secure a resilient future for water, for the benefit of customers, the environment and wider society. And we are encouraging the development of new markets to ensure more sustainable use of resources, and better value for customers.”

Rose O’Neill, freshwater programme manager at WWF-UK, has called for a reform of water abstraction licenses , which are used by water companies and farmers to take water from rivers, lakes and underground sources of water.

O’Neill said: “In the future, pressure on our rivers and water supplies is only going to rise. We need to act now to ensure that we have enough water for people and nature in years to come. Abstraction licences ensure that rivers don’t dry up as demand for water increases. Yet the system is out-of-date, unsustainable and not fit for purpose.

Barriers and enablers

The risk of future droughts is often largely over-shadowed by the issue of flooding. The Water UK report comes shortly after publication of the Government’s National Floods Resilience Review, which revealed that extreme downpours could occur 20-30% more frequently due to the changing climate.

As part of that review, Defra said it was looking to take a cross-sector approach to protecting critical infrastructure through closer collaboration between water, telecoms and power companies, and the development of more creative, business-led solutions to deliver new flood defences, which would prevent a significant burden being placed on the taxpayer.

Earlier this year, the third annual Earth Security Index (ESI 2016) warned that businesses must take heed of the global water crisis and become “stewards of limited resources” by combatting water scarcity that threatens to destabilise infrastructure, extractives and agriculture.

Conciding with World Water Week at the start of this month, edie analysed the projects and products that could aid efforts to combat water scarcity in a green innovation round-up. And writing in an exclusive edie blog this week, P&G’s water stewardship leader Shannon Quinn analysed the key barriers and enablers for businesses to successfully tackle water scarcity issues.

Alex Baldwin

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