Triggered by increasing concerns over the resilience of our water supply system to future drought the Water Resources Long-term Planning Framework was published by Water UK in September 2016. It highlights how resilience to drought is diminishing due to climate change, population growth and the need to address unsustainable abstraction.
Shortfalls in the order of more than 800Ml/d are predicted in the South-East by 2040 under even relatively moderate future scenarios (see Figure 1). To put this in context, this shortfall is equivalent to the daily water consumption of around 5 million people with the economic cost of a single day of lost supply across England and Wales estimated at £1.3 billion. In response the report puts forward potential solutions involving a mix of more demand management, new and bigger reservoirs, effluent reuse and water transfers (see Figure 2).
So what are the top issues emerging from this groundbreaking study?
1. Recognising the problem – and acting on it
We are facing an increasing risk of drought which will impact on the natural environment. The recent State of Nature (2016) report found 13% of our freshwater species are already at risk of extinction with hydrological change identified as the 5th largest driver for change across all species assessed. More frequent and more severe droughts, as predicted by the study, will only exacerbate this threat to nature. Government, regulators, water companies and the environmental sector need to ensure that the response is not to just take more and more water from the natural environment.
Figure 1 Potential deficits by 2040 and 2065 under the portfolios:
2. Demand management – doing more
It is clear from the report that water companies need to raise their game on demand management and that they need to do it sooner rather than later. Demand management can be a win : win as not only does it improve resilience to drought it also reduces the amount of water we need to abstract from the environment at all times.
We will be promoting greater action on demand management in the current round of Water Resource Management Planning and company business planning for 2020-2025 (PR19). This means water companies going further and faster than currently planned with leakage reduction and metering; developing and using smart tariffs and incentives to encourage less water use and retrofitting water efficiency measures to existing homes. It also means joining us in calling for planning policies and building regulations that lead to far greater water efficiency being built into new properties, particularly in vulnerable areas.
3. New supply side solutions – difficult choices ahead
Even with enhanced demand management, new supply side solutions such as water transfers between regions and new and bigger reservoirs are predicted to be needed by 2040. They will have environmental impacts both positive and negative. Unfortunately the report does not go into any detail on these impacts being primarily a hydrological and economic analysis. This is a major gap that needs to be addressed at a comparable national scale.
We do not yet have the information necessary to evaluate options such as new in-catchment storage, water transfers and desalination. What we need to see is thorough environmental assessment of alternative strategic options at national, regional and company scales and evidence that environmental considerations are being properly factored into the options analysis and decision making processes.
Figure 2 Potential strategic solutions put forward in the study:
4. WFD no-deterioration risk – a hidden issue
The report exposes the potential scale of a hitherto relatively unknown issue around currently unused “paper” water that companies have on their licenses and have been relying on in their calculations of deployable output (i.e. how much water they can put into supply). If the use of this paper water could result in deterioration in Water Framework Directive (WFD) status then all or some of it will need to be removed due to the WFD “no-deterioration” principle. This poses a major issue which could amount to several 100Ml/d across companies in water scarce areas such as Severn Trent, Thames, Southern and Anglian.
This ”paper” water has not yet been used so assessing the risk of deterioration is technically very challenging. We may well see the regulators and companies looking for a way forward, for example linking its use to enhanced monitoring with claw back if impacts emerge. However, in all water bodies that companies rely on for abstraction there is a great opportunity for the environmental sector and companies to work together to increase their natural resilience to low flows and to abstraction through techniques such as river restoration and habitat enhancement. As the report makes clear “a resilient natural environment forms the basis for sustainable water supplies”.
We should welcome this ground breaking report. It provides a wake-up call, bringing to our attention the increasing water supply risks we face in the future. It makes a useful contribution to the discussion around the ways we can address those risks and ensure a resilient future. However, the lack of any substantive consideration of the environmental impact of future droughts, or of the positive and negative impacts of potential solutions, is a significant gap which needs to be addressed at national, regional and company scales.
Dr Nathan Richardson, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB
Tel. 01767 693447