Water is the most valuable resource we share. We need it to meet our most basic needs, we harness it for energy, we revel in it during the summer.
Providing clean water to every home across the UK has been a triumph of technological ingenuity. It is something we’ve come to take for granted in this country, but climate change and the complexities that come with expanding cities and a growing population pose problems.
Environmental change will impact all aspects of human life. In the past decade, we have seen year on year record breaking temperatures, longer dry spells and increasing health risks – with the British summer of 2022 bringing new questions about the readiness of our infrastructure across transport, energy and the logistics sector. The first red-warning threat to life was issued by the Met Office and drought declarations across parts of England are becoming more regular.
The best way to keep safe in the heat? Drink plenty of water, of course. Unfortunately, these conditions are also taking a toll on our H2O reserves and supply. Before and after images of reservoirs, lakes and peatland were flashed across our screens throughout June, July and August. There then followed calls to restrict water use, impose hosepipe bans and suggestions we should apply peer pressure to our neighbours to shame them out of watering their gardens while offering tips on how to recycle water.
Behavioural change in consumer-level choices can have a significant impact, but the bigger picture points to more serious challenges. The Environment Agency estimates that summer rainfall in the UK will decrease by 15 per cent by the 2050s and up to 22 per cent by the 2080s. This will further squeeze supply in the UK.
Alongside climate change, we are seeing population growth continue and cities expand. The ONS forecasts that the population of the UK will increase by 2.1 million by the mid-2030s and a further 3.9 million by 2045, placing additional pressures on the supply network. The Government estimates that this population trajectory will require four billion litres of water per day.
Water shortages will impact all areas of our economy – and in many parts of the country the effects are already being felt. Housing and water supply will become even more interconnected when we have a shortage of both – and we are already seeing local authorities placing great scrutiny on new developments’ water efficiency.
In places like Cambridgeshire (where water provision is a key consideration in the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan), there is increasing demand for more housing as the population grows. But developments struggle to get approved because of their impact on local water infrastructure which faces an unsustainable strain. It’s a familiar chicken and egg scenario for those who work in property and development.
So what is being done to address these challenges?
Water companies are currently preparing water resources management plans (WRMPs), setting out plans for significant investment.
Ofwat has set a £4.8bn investment target for maintenance and long-term supply planning. This is part of the English Water Industry National Environment Programme and the Welsh Environment Programme.
And last month, the Government announced measures to improve water use efficiency through labelling of appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers and showers. This aims to replicate energy efficiency labelling and inform users of their water use. It is hoped this will help save 1.2bn litres per day.
There is much to do, but few challenges are more important. If we are going to meet our water needs today and futureproof supply for a growing population, we’ll need to draw on the late-Victorian age creativity and resourcefulness that allowed us access to clean water in the first place.
Yashil Gopee is an account executive at Camargue