UK Water – A Time Of Change

Unprecedented flooding and drought in the past few years have focused attention on UK water resources. And, in recent months, the concept of water footprinting has gained much publicity, writes Duncan Brown

When David Dewell, a health and safety and facilities manager at Saft Batteries in South Shields, set about carrying out some energy efficiency checks in the factory, he made a series of alarming discoveries. “There was a solenoid valve in one of the machines,” he says. “We thought, when we turned off the machine, the power being shut off would close the valve.”

It turned out this wasn’t the case: about 17,000 litres of water were draining through the valve every day. David found a broken ballcock in a toilet overflow tank that sent water out onto a rooftop drain 24 hours a day. He found that the overflows in all eight of his shop-floor toilets were doing the same.

Between Friday lunchtime and Monday morning, the shop floor toilets alone spat out 8,000 litres. “I was using 85,000 litres in 24 hours,” says David. “Now we’re steady at about 13,000.”

Since the checks, David’s company has saved about £30,000 on its water bill this year. However, the tools that encouraged and enabled him to carry out these checks were only made public in a trial programme last year. It’s called Rippleffect, created by government-sponsored sustainability consultants Envirowise.

It’s one of a number of new initiatives which is putting the emphasis on sustainability in the way Britain’s water is managed. Although really severe water shortages are naturally associated with the hotter parts of the world, new research shows that even parts of the wet and windy UK are in danger of tipping into dangerously unsustainable usage patterns. In parts of the South-east, we already have less water per person than Egypt or Morocco. Greater awareness and easily available tools can help businesses like David’s reap enormous benefits from resource efficiency, but there are also more fundamental changes taking place.

These are happening on a national level. The Water Services Regulation Authority, better known as Ofwat, is currently in the process of adjusting price limits for the period 2009-2015. The water companies conduct this periodic review (PR) in association with Ofwat every five years, when everybody in the water industry takes a step back to reappraise the situation. It’s a flexible way of adapting to large-scale forces, such as climate change and population growth, and Ofwat’s decisions will affect every part of the water economy from abstraction to consumption. The 2009 review is set to be the first when climate change becomes a central factor in their deliberations.

“[Climate change] wasn’t a high-priority issue. It is now,” says Dr Mike Kiel, head of climate change policy at Ofwat. It’s fraught with uncertainties. “You could de-risk, at great expense, climate change,” says Kiel. “For example, a company might want to build a whole lot of reservoirs, but consumers would be paying for that in their bills. We have to strike a balance: how much risk should a company bear, how much risk should consumers bear?”

Ofwat is planning to use the PR to create more competition within the industry, a practice that has already shown itself to be effective in Scotland, where competition over commercial customers already exists. Kiel believes these kinds of market forces can encourage innovation towards efficiency, and that a potential outcome of market forces could be the creation of new water retail companies, which might trade on sustainable credentials.

While Ofwat deals with water companies and prices, other factors are coming into play which are directly concerned with the availability and quality of water and how we consume it. The Environment Agency is currently preparing its water strategy for the next 25 years and beyond, to be released in the spring.

“The 2006 drought focused people’s minds,” says Andy Turner, the water resources policy manager at the agency. “Now we’ve got new legislation, as well as more information on population and better information on climate change.”

According to Defra, some water sources in Britain already see over-abstraction to the point where the authorities are planning to “identify any licence that needs to be varied, or possibly revoked, in order to mitigate the adverse environmental effects”. To move forward sustainably, Turner says, we need common understanding of the nature of the pressures we’re facing in the future.

“I’m asking: ‘ Has the true cost of water been revealed?'” says Kiel. “In some parts of the country, water is clearly undervalued. People think water is a right, it’s unlimited. But it’s not.” He agrees that reduced supplies will lead to higher prices. “It’s likely that water will become more scarce, and therefore more expensive.”

And it’s not just the quantity, but the quality of water that’s also going to be more strictly evaluated. In 2000, the European Parliament signed off the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which demanded that all European countries brought their bodies of water up to what they call a “good standard” over the following three decades. This year sees the start of the first full-scale attempt to meet these targets.

Pam Guilder, head of environment, recreation and marine at the Environment Agency, explains. “It’s the whole nation’s plan to improve the ecological status of our water bodies by 2027,” she says. Before the WFD, British rivers were considered clean on the basis of chemical purity rather than more general ecological standards. “At the moment, you might see a river which is technically clean, but which doesn’t have any fish in it. We need to improve the ecological quality to support food webs and other natural resources.”

The main enemy to good-quality water, though, is not vast pipes pumping waste out of industrial facilities into the water courses. The problem the agency faces is what it calls “diffuse pollution” – small quantities of pollution coming from water running off a variety of sources, from buildings to farmland to road surfaces, that aggregate into a serious volume of tainted supply.

According to the agency, existing measures aren’t doing enough to control it, and the question of who takes responsibility for runoff from their land is one that the agency is looking to answer over the next few years. Farmers are being helped to work in less sensitive areas by government-led catchment-sensitive schemes, but these are “a small initiative in relation to the scale of the problem”.

Everyone is likely to have to take more responsibility for small-scale pollution of this sort. The Environment Agency talks about “a process of collaboration that ensures transparency, clarity and funding for actions for all sectors.” Among the most affected will be construction projects, which work directly with the land, and there may also be changes afoot for light industry and everyday water usage in the office.

But, as Guilder says, this is also an opportunity to do good. “It’s important that, in the development of new infrastructure, new houses, developers plan in a way that not only reduces the impact of their development but also reduces problems that were there before.”

Britain’s water consumers don’t just use up the water under their feet. It’s only in recent months that the concept of water footprinting – that is, considering supply chains in terms of water consumption in the same way as they might be in terms of carbon emissions – has gained much publicity. Research shows that average household water use over one day (about 150 litres) was met 30 times over by the quantity of virtual water that had gone into all the goods used and food eaten.

The technique for footprinting is young, and benchmarks are yet to be set. But organisations like Forum for the Future are already working with companies to create corporate water strategies and risk maps. If the prospect of a fully fledged check-up doesn’t appeal, online tools are also in development, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development free Global Water Tool.

But it’s a complex issue. As Kiel says: “This issue is not about badging products with a quantity of water used, but asking: was the water used sustainably? Greenhouse gas emissions are all bad. Water footprinting is not as clear as that.”

Nobody can predict the exact toll climate change and population growth will take on our water supplies, but there is no doubt that increased temperatures and more extreme seasonal changes will create challenging new patterns of supply and demand.

Predictions released by the Environment Agency at the end of last year warned that “by 2050, river flows in winter may increase by 10% to 15% but with lower flows in most rivers from April to December. River flows in the late summer and early autumn could fall by over 50%, and by as much as 80% in some catchments”.

Water efficiency and responsible disposal are coming closer than ever to being key to survival – and even success.

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