The government has issued a White Paper, Water for Life, outlining its vision for a comprehensive reform and revolution in the way Britain manages its water resources, laying the groundwork for legislation aimed at creating a future-proof water industry that will also help sustain economic growth.
Britain is actually drier than you think. According to Waterwise, London is drier than Istanbul in Turkey, and the South East, which is now officially experiencing a drought, has less water per person than Sudan or Syria. In general, the United Kingdom has less water available to its citizens than most other European countries.
The situation is unlikely to improve; like many other natural resources, scarcity is likely to become an increasingly pressing issue, not only for policymakers but also for those who expect to turn on the tap and expect a ready stream of clean water. The key to keeping the taps from running dry is to take action right now. To that end, the government is working to create a blueprint for the long-term management of our nation’s water supplies.
The environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, has warned that unless our attitudes toward water use change, Britain will face a future of water scarcity and long-term environmental damage, with rivers running dry. Her warning came as she released a new White Paper, Water for Life, in December, outlining the government’s long-term plans to ensure a resilient supply in the face of significant challenges.
The Government intends to follow this up this year by introducing a draught Water Bill and, as soon as the Parliamentary timetable allows, a full Water Bill. Climate change and shifting weather patterns that result in more severe weather, population growth, and the need to draw more water for use in growing food are all challenges that this is all set to address.
“Currently, we enjoy clean water at the turn of a tap and watch it drain away without giving it a second 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 have enough water for everyone will be one of the major challenges this country will face in the coming years.” We can already see the types of issues that may arise, with parts of the United Kingdom still suffering from drought despite the fact that it is December. With water becoming less predictable over time, we must all do our part to ensure the security of our water supply.”
As Spelman pointed out, much of the water we draw from the mains goes down the drain: flushing toilets, showering and bathing, washing the car or pots and pans. We drink water that has been processed and delivered to a drinkable standard, but we only drink a fraction of it. In many ways, that’s a colossal waste.
Water for Life identifies several key areas for reform, including the rules that govern how water is extracted from rivers, a process known as abstraction.
Among these are the following:
• The document explains how rivers will be improved by encouraging local organisations to improve water quality and ensure that water is extracted from the environment in the “least damaging way.”
• Water market deregulation and water industry reform are also intended to “drive economic growth.” By removing “barriers that have discouraged new entrants” from competing in the water market, the market will be made more competitive.
• Customers in the business and public sectors will be able to bargain for better services from suppliers, lowering their costs.
• Water companies will be asked to consider where water trading and interconnecting pipelines could assist in ensuring secure water supplies at a “price customers can afford.” Companies will also be able to implement new social tariffs for people who are unable to pay their bills and will be able to combat bad debt, which is estimated to cost ordinary households £15 per year.
• Water for Life also addresses the “historic injustice” of water infrastructure in the South West, which has resulted in high bills in comparison to other parts of the country.
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, water companies are more efficient and customer-focused, and water is “valued as the precious resource it is.”
The new publication and proposed White Paper follow the Natural Environment White Paper, which was released last year.
The Environment Agency also published two reports on the same day that Spelman launched Water for Life, which are said to support the case presented in the White Paper; these include information on water availability now and in the future, as well as 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, abundantly falling from the sky,” Spelman added. “Old certainties are shaken only when rivers begin to run dry, reservoirs run low, and cracks appear in the ground.” These are early warning signs of what we can expect from a changing climate. We are unable to function without water. It is, in many ways, our most valuable resource. As a result, we must act now to implement the necessary changes to keep our rivers flowing and our water supplies reliable and affordable.”
So, everything appears to be changing in the way water is managed as a natural resource, but it will not be a case of institutional and infrastructural, business and regulatory, changes handed down from on high; we are all expected to play a role in making the best use of water. Given our historical proclivity for dumping clean water down the drain, reducing the amount of fresh water we use at home – or in the workplace – or utilising grey water and rainwater harvesting systems will all play a role in the future. In many ways, water efficiency begins at home.
The government is looking to highlight the steps we can take as individuals and households as part of the process of reforming and restructuring the national water management mechanisms, such as installing water butts in gardens to collect rainwater, addressing leaks as soon as possible, converting toilets to dual flush systems, and so on. All of these things play a role in ensuring that the future does not become a little parched.
“The extent of the change we face is uncertain,” said a Defra spokesperson.
“It is never easy to predict the future.” We can be certain 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 economic growth, as well as that enough water remains in our water bodies to support a healthy and high-quality natural environment. We must protect our natural inheritance. We owe it to future generations.”