There is a significant risk of severe drought in England and Wales with the potential to disrupt the public water supply sector, according to a Water UK report.
The Water Resources Long Term Planning Framework looks at the next 50 years of water supply across the UK, and considers the impacts of climate change, population growth and environmental drivers.
Ben Piper, technical director for water resources at Atkins — the lead company in the report, said: “The study arouse from conversations between Rory Stewart, who was then DEFRA’s [the Department for Environmental, Food & Rural affairs] secretary of state, and water companies’ CEOs in the autumn of last year and there was a concern about whether the resilience of the public water supply sector was being adequately addressed and whether the plans that have been produced up to now were abase.
“The aim of the project was really to set out the risks to the public water supply sector arising from a number of main issues: drought, the possible impacts of climate change and the water demand from population growth.”
Some of the report’s findings and recommendations include:
• there is a strong case for the UK and Welsh Governments to consider adopting consistent national minimum levels of resilience, recognising that there are significant issues to address;
• the investment needed to increase resilience is relatively modest when compared with the cost of drought;
• an approach that includes supply enhancement, with associated transfers, as well as demand management is the most appropriate strategic mix for the future;
• there is a case for a national level ‘adaptive plan’ that supports on-going water resource management plans and balances risk against opportunities to defer costs;
• industry, government and regulators need to work together with customers on how best to respond to the risk of severe drought.
Piper added: “I think one of the key things is going to be how the government and OFWAT — regulator of water and sewerage providers in England and Wales — set out the instructions to companies for the next planning round in the OFWAT strategic policy statement. It also raises the question of whether DEFRA would issue a national policy statement on water infrastructure.”
Even though the report doesn’t give specific practical solutions for the issue, Piper believes that water companies will draw their own strategies based on the report. “The study provides a consistent set of data for individual companies to do their own plans from which particular solutions might arise and those possible solutions will be developed during the next round of water resources management plans and the likelihood is that there would be infrastructure development that will involve more than one water company,” he said.
Possible solutions might involve the construction and development of infrastructure, such as water storages, water pipelines or watercourses.
Piper said: “In the short term there will be measures to manage demand and change customer behaviour. On the supply side the main thing will be infrastructure to improve the connectivity between different water company areas, and it may well require new storage but that would be years ahead after the next five-year planning round. So we are talking about a long-term programme here and the initial stages would be to go through the necessary environmental and planning processes.”
With the high risk of droughts, water companies need to plan accordingly, however Piper highlights that those plans address different levels of risk. “Different water utilities are planning to a different level of risk, some companies may plan to a lower level of risk than others and they are able to do that under the existing water resource planning guideline but under the Water Act 2014, the secretary of state has the powers to direct companies to plan to a particular level of service — and where that particular issue will end up is not quite clear at the moment.”
“There is ongoing discussion between water companies, regulators and government on that issue.”
The report was funded by Water UK and was led by a steering group of water companies, regulators and UK and Welsh Government representatives. Atkins worked with representatives from Mott MacDonald, Nera Economic Consulting, HR Wallingford and the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute.