The New Normal

The New Normal

Twenty Years of Drought

Stephen Sykes  |  29/03/2012

1. Introduction

Two successively dry winters mean the chalk aquifers of Southern and Eastern England have not refilled with water. Some of the reservoirs in these regions only have 40% of their expected volume of water for this time of year. 
A very serious drought is upon us. Hosepipe bans will be introduced on April 5th 2012 across the south and east affecting 20 million people. The Secretary of State at DEFRA, Caroline Spelman, is telling people to conserve water now, but it is not proving easy to get this message out. 
Describing drought as the biggest issue the water industry will face over the next 20 years, Spelman has suggested that drier winters are likely to become the 'new normal[1]'.

In contrast to the south and east, parts of the north and west of the UK have had wet winters with localised flooding.

How can it be that this rain battered island of ours is facing the prospect of challenging water re-source conditions for the years ahead? 

2. Key Questions

Critics are asking more searching questions;

• Why can’t we match demand and supply more effectively?

• Why can’t we redistribute this most vital resource from areas of plenty to areas of drought?

• What are the real issues behind the lack of water availability and the UK’s emerging and serious water security problem? Is our burgeoning population the dominant cause for concern?  

• Has something gone fundamentally awry with the UK’s system of privatised water resource management?  Who is responsible if we get it wrong – the private water companies, the Gov-ernment, regulators or all three?

3. Demand for water in the UK

Demand for water comes from various sources – agriculture (5%), industry (65%) and domestic (30%) :
• At times of limited supply, the UK’s private water companies can apply for drought orders from the Secretary of State under the Water Resources Act 1991. These orders allow– effectively allowing the water companies to prohibit or limit particular uses of water, e.g. by industry. Industrial usage has been impacted by the economic downturn, but is still y far the greatest user of water in the UK and hence it is essential that policies encouraging and rewarding best practice should be promoted, especially for sectors of industry which are most water intensive such as electricity and iron and steel where water is used for cooling purposes. 
 
• On average, each person in the UK uses  140 litres of water per day. To reduce domestic usage there is voluntary water metering in some parts of the UK, including 70% of households in the south west.  There have been calls for compulsory water metering[2]. This needs to be fast-tracked. In addition, the country urgently needs a campaign of communication and engagement, led by Government, water companies, the Environment Agency, local authorities and others to inform and educate the public about simple measures to cut down domestic consumption. Spelman is right to insist that action is needed now.

• To reduce demand from agriculture, Spelman, has recently floated a new policy idea: growing genetically modified plants which are more resistant to drought. This will not be a quick fix and it will not be uncontroversial. Attempts to introduce GM crops in the 90s met a solid wall of public hostility. That does not mean that the matter should not be revisited, twenty years on and with twenty years of data about GM crops grown (successfully?) in the US, Asia, Australia and elsewhere. 


4. Supply of water in the UK

On the supply side, here are some of the suggestions to boost resources by capturing more water. The plans have been circling for years and their time may come:

A National Water Grid?

This would bring water from the north and west of the UK to the water stressed regions. There are some challenges with it, including:

• At a time of austerity it would be very expensive to build, unless the existing canal system can be utilised.

• It would be costly and carbon intensive to run - burning a lot of expensive carbon to power the movement of water tens if not hundreds of miles.

However it has the attraction of bold thinking and is gathering political support (e.g. Boris Johnson backs it ). 

New reservoirs

Abingdon has been identified for many years as the likely location for a new £1bn reservoir for Thames Water to service demand in the capital. If Abingdon ever gets the go-ahead it would be the first new reservoir for the south east since the 1970s.

However, the environmental impact of construction can be considerable – as well as the cost, and how this results in higher water bills for consumers.

It is interesting to note that it was Spelman who turned down Thames appeal in 2011 for planning permission to build the new reservoir at Abingdon, requiring the company to go back to the drawing board.

The Chief Executive of Thames, Martin Baggs, raised Abingdon again in an interview for the Evening Standard (March 13th 2012, page 12).


Desalination Plants

The UK’s first desalination plant opened in 2010 as a back-up resource.

It is possible (and desirable) that more plants will be constructed. 


5. The underlying cause

It is indisputable that the most significant contributor to the UK’s water security problem is the often unspoken issue of the UK’s burgeoning population[3].

There are 61,000,000 people on this crowded island, 20,000,000 of whom are packed into the south east corner. Our population is predicted to reach 77,000,000 by 2050.
A key matrix for water policy specialists is ‘water availability’ – the amount of water available for each head of population. It may surprise some to know that water availability per head of population in the South East of England is comparable to the countries of North Africa. If one to two million people are added to London's population, water availability will be a very serious challenge as well as a serious constraint to growth and sustainable living.


6. Impact of Privatisation

In privatising the water industry the UK Government (largely) outsourced its responsibility for water supply to the private sector.

The Government retained  a degree of ‘control’  by obliging the water companies to produce and maintain 25 year water resource management plans, setting out how they are plan to meet their obligation to supply water.

Between 2008-2010 DEFRA reviewed the plans for the UK’s water companies, in consultation with the Environment Agency. These have now been approved. 

The plans consider available supplies, and what if anything needs to be done to develop more sup-plies (e.g. new reservoirs), reduce demand (or both) over the next quarter century. 

It does not follow, though, that because the plans have been drawn up they will necessarily be effective.  The system of ‘control’ gives rise to plenty of questions:

• Will the plans be implemented by the water companies? 

• Will DEFRA will police them effectively?

• If the plans involve major infrastructure, will OFWAT allow the water companies to increase prices to pay for this? Is this going to be acceptable at a time of austerity?


7. Last word

There is no simple, one-track answer to the drought or to protecting the UK’s water security. A  combination of policy interventions and behavioural changes is needed to control demand and bolster supply.
It is incumbent on our policy-makers to plan for the very long-term and take measures to ensure that we protect this vital resource.
More can be done on the demand side (metering and an urgently needed public education campaign) as well as the supply-side (new reservoirs are probably inevitable).
However, there are deeper rooted issues which need much closer scrutiny by policymakers, including the UK’s population growth and the adequacy of our system of privatised water supply and its related regulation to manage the nation’s water security.

 

[1] Recent scientific climate change models suggest milder, wetter winters for the UK, so the current drought could just be a blip. That said, any responsible policymaker has to plan for worst case scenarios.

[2] This has been shown to reduce demand by 10% - see the Castle Debate on Water Security, April 2011, Professor Bill Howarth.

[3] Professor Alan Jenkins of the Centre for Water Ecology at Wallingford has said that “Population increase is a key driver for water resources in the future. In the UK there is clearly concern about climate change, but population increase is going to be a big (if not the biggest) driver for water security concerns over the next 20 years”. See Castle Debate at fn 4.

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