Water demand management an increasing challenge for UK, warns Defra director

The UK's water resources are "already under pressure" and water demand is set to increase, according to Defra director Sonia Phippard, who has also raised concerns over affordability and environmental issues.

In her keynote address at last week’s (February 2) Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum, entitled ‘The future of the water industry – post Water White Paper (WWP), director of water, floods, environmental risk and regulation Ms Phippard said the paper clearly outlined the long-term environmental challenges the UK water industry would face, concluding that “water demand is a challenge and will need to be managed”.

Working with the Environment Agency (EA), Ofwat and the Welsh Assembly, Ms Phippard said that Defra’s white paper looked at whether the challenges facing the water sector had actually changed and what the “big questions are for the next 20 or even 50 years”, as well as calling for water to be viewed as a “precious resource”.

In particular, Ms Phippard said the area they aimed to focus on was the supply demand question and how it is going to impact on the UK’s current ways of working. However, she said it is clear that “there’s likely to be less water for people, businesses and the environment” as the challenge of population growth will be “significant”.

She said: “We can already see water resources under pressure that has implications for users and serious implications for ecosystems”, while also noting that water abstraction has a major impact on this.

Furthermore, as a direct result of population growth and climate change, she said the UK “may need a significant new water source”, warning that “pressures will not be limited to the Southeast and the South”, which are generally drier.

As a result, Ms Phippard said Defra is looking for a “new approach to abstraction management” and explained that any reforms would be about creating a “better market in abstraction licences to make it easier for businesses to access water in the volume and location they want it”.

When asked by session chair David Mowat, MP and board member of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology how radical that reform might be, Ms Phippard explained, “it won’t be an exercise in changing current abstraction rights”.

Rather, she said, they will be working with abstractors in the short term in order to set up a regime in the long term, adding that “we want it to be an inclusive process and to work over the next year or two to get some proposals by 2013.” However, she also said a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny would be ready in the next few months.

In conclusion, Ms Phippard underlined that water “is essential for economic growth” and as such it is essential that demand is managed to enable businesses to be supported.

Wessex Water’s David Elliott asked Ms Phippard whether the WWP should have included a stronger steer on metering. Ms Phippard acknowledged that metering had a place in the future strategy, but also acknowledged that a blanket metering policy was unlikely to be a workable solution, saying “I think our view remains that while metering remains a useful tool in demand management, it’s not the be all and end all.”

Carys Matthews

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