Twitter LinkedIn

Using water wisely: England's water
infrastructure challenge

The National Infrastructure Commission’s role is to advise the Government on infrastructure needed up to 2050 in order to sustain economic growth, improve competitiveness and enhance our quality of life.

May 2018

Transport, digital, energy, waste, flooding and water supply infrastructure (my area of responsibility) are all part of the remit. Preparing for a drier future includes our recommendations on water supply, as part of the National Infrastructure Assessment to be published this Summer.

Water security for people and more water for the environment

To assess the case for building resilience in England’s water supply, I started by looking at the costs of not having a water supply system supporting a good quality of life, including the costs of supplying water if the taps run dry during periods of sustained low rainfall. The first, staggering finding was that the cost of providing water during a drought emergency outweighs massively the costs of reducing the risk of the taps running dry in the first place. This told me loud and clear that we should aim high and push for a more resilient public water supply.

Importantly, this would ensure that more water is left in the environment. Currently, companies apply for ‘drought permits’ when reserves start running low during a drought. These allow them to take more water from the environment than they normally would – at a time when the environment needs to retain its water the most. This has happened more often than you might think: some 600 times since the late 70s. Ensuring we use and waste less water, and creating new resources to supply water even in periods of drought, will ensure that these environmentally sensitive measures are required less often.

Everyone’s issue, everyone’s solution

The first, and cheapest, step to increase drought resilience is making the most of the resources we have: the Commission found a strong economic case for substantially reducing water wasted through leaks, which is currently about 20% of the water entering the network. Water companies need to invest more and develop new technologies to make greater headway in leakage reduction. By itself, however, this would not be enough. Users have an important role. Households can play their part by reducing the amount of water used at home (eg through more showers and fewer baths and using more efficient washing machines). Consumers will also have to accept paying a fair price for every litre of water they use.

Joining the dots

Even when substantially reducing water wastage through leaks, additional supply infrastructure will still be needed as early as the 2030s. Supply infrastructure such as reservoirs, desalination plants, transfers and water re-use all offer a range of economic, social and environmental pros and cons.

The best approach usually involves a combination of these options; however, there is still little joined up thinking between water companies in identifying the cheapest and most sustainable infrastructure mix. To make the most of our precious water resources, the Commission wants to see a more strategic approach taken, including more water sharing between companies. This can be best achieved by taking a regional and national perspective, and considering the resilience challenge from the point of view of all the actors that interact with a catchment.

Taking action

The Commission’s recommendations to the Government are ambitious, but also achievable. I hope they provide a crucial first step to ensuring future generations can continue to access high-quality water that is supported by a thriving environment, in the face of climate change and population growth.

Guest blog by Manuela Di Mauro, Water Infrastructure Lead at the National Infrastructure Commission

Follow @manuela_dimauro & @NatInfraCom

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.