It’s scarcer than you think

The Government has launched a White Paper, Water for Life, setting out its vision for a comprehensive reform and revolution in the way Britain manages its water resources, setting the scene for legislation that aims to create a water industry resilient for the future that will also help sustain economic growth.

Britain is drier than you think. London is drier than Istanbul in Turkey, according to the organisation Waterwise, while the South East, now officially experiencing a drought, has less water per person than the Sudan or Syria. The UK generally has less water available for its citizens than most other European countries.

The situation isn’t set to get any easier; like many other natural resources scarcity is likely to become an ever-more pressing theme not just for policymakers but for those looking to turn on the tap and expect a ready stream of clean water. The key to ensuring the taps don’t run dry demands action in the here and now. To this end, the Government is taking steps to develop the blueprint for the future management of our national water supplies.

Britain faces a future of water shortage and lasting environmental damage - with rivers running dry - unless our attitudes to water use change, the environment secretary Caroline Spelman has warned. Her cautionary note was made as she launched a new White Paper, Water for Life, in December that sets out the Government’s long-term plans to secure a resilient supply in the face of significant challenges.

The Government intends to follow this up this year with the introduction a draft Water Bill and with a full Water Bill as soon as the Parliamentary timetable allows. The challenges this is all set to address come in many guises, from climate change and shifting weather patterns that see more severe weather to population growth to the need to draw more water for use in growing food.

“Currently we enjoy clean water at the turn of a tap and watch it drain away without a thought, but parts of England actually have less rainfall per person than many Mediterranean countries,”Spelman said at the White Paper’s launch. “Making sure we’ve got enough water for everyone is going to be one of the major challenges this country will have to deal with in the years ahead. We can already see the type of problems we may face, with parts of Britain still in drought even though we’re in December. With water expected to be less predictable as time goes on we all have to play our part in ensuring our water supply remains secure.”

As Spelman indicated, a lot of the water we draw from the mains goes more or less straight down the drain: flushing toilets, showering and bathing, washing the car or the pots and pans. The water we consume is processed and delivered to a drinkable standard yet we only pour a fraction of it down our necks. In many ways, then, that’s quite a waste.

Water for Life sets out some key areas for reform, among these will be the rules that govern how water is taken from rivers - abstraction as it is called.

Among these measures:
• The document explains how the condition of rivers will be improved by encouraging local organisations to improve water quality and make sure that the extraction of water from the environment is done in the “least damaging way”
• Deregulation of the water markets and reform of the water industry are also set out to “drive economic growth”. The market will be opened up to greater competition by removing “barriers that have discouraged new entrants” from competing in the water market
• Business and public sector customers will be able to negotiate better services from suppliers and so cut their costs
• Water companies will be asked to consider where water trading and interconnecting pipelines could help ensure secure water supplies at a “price customers can afford”. Companies will also be able to introduce new social tariffs for people struggling to pay their bills and seek to tackle bad debt which is said to cost ordinary households £15 per year.
• Water for Life also addresses the “historic unfairness” of water infrastructure in the South West, which has led to high bills in the region in relation to other parts of the country

Taken together, these and other aspects of the Government’s outline for the future management of the nation’s water supply are expected to ensure the water sector is resilient for the future, that water companies are more efficient and customer-focused, and that water is “valued as the precious resource it is”.

The new publication and the proposed White Paper follows on from the Natural Environment White Paper published last year.

The same day that Spelman launched Water for Life, the Environment Agency also published two reports that are said to support the case presented in the White Paper; these include information on the availability of water now and in the future and an assessment of the current regulatory regime to determine whether it is “fit for purpose” in the face of future pressures on water resources.

“We think of water as free, falling from the sky in abundance,” Spelman added. “It is only when rivers start to run dry, reservoirs fall low, cracks emerge on the ground that the old certainties are shaken. These are warning signs of what we might expect to see in a changing climate. We cannot do without water. It is in many ways our most precious resource. So we must act now to make the changes needed to keep our rivers flowing and our water supplies reliable and affordable.”

So, everything looks set to change in the way that water is managed as a natural resource, but it won’t just be a case of institutional and infrastructural, business and regulatory, changes handed down from on high in making the best use of water we are all expected to play a part. Indeed, given our historical proclivity for casually pouring clean water down the drain, reducing the amount of fresh water we use at home - or in the workplace - or making use of grey water and rainwater harvesting systems will all have a role to play in the future. Water efficiency, in many respects, begins at home.

As part of the process of reform and restructuring of the national water management mechanisms, the Government is also looking to highlight the steps we can take as individuals and households; steps such as installing water butts in gardens to collect rainwater, addressing leaks as quickly as possible, converting toilets to dual flush systems, and so forth. These all have a role to play in making sure that the future doesn’t become a little parched.

“The extent of the change we face is uncertain,” said a spokesperson for Defra.

“The future is never easy to predict. We can be confident that the way we manage and use our water resources will need to change, but we must still ensure continued secure supplies for households and to support economic growth, and that enough water is left in our water bodies to support a healthy and high quality natural environment. We must safeguard our natural inheritance. We owe it to the next generation.”

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