Into the jaws of death: can England prevent a looming water crisis?

In 20 to 25 years, England could face the ‘jaws of death’ – the point at which it will not have enough water to supply its needs. What’s being done to avoid it?

The queue stretched around the block. Some of those standing in line seemed to be treating it as a street party. Others looked anxious or simply bored, passing their weight from one foot to the other, staring ahead in the hope that the line might somehow, miraculously, start to move quicker. They were destined for disappointment. Others seemed furious. Welcome to just one central London neighbourhood at the height of the great drought of 2040.

All of the people stood in line were waiting for one thing: an opportunity to fill their jerry cans from the standpipe on the Caledonian Road, just north of King’s Cross station. The situation was a social leveller. Rich or poor, young or old, people of any religion or none... all were standing in line to collect enough water to make their lives endurable. 

They needed water to drink, naturally, but also to wash clothes, dishes and themselves. They also badly needed water to flush their toilets. An edict that toilets should only be flushed once a day had been issued just the previous day by government, which had already declared a state of emergency a week before. The restriction on using the precious resource to flush the loos was the final straw for many.

The ‘jaws of death’

The above scenario is not the stuff of science fiction. A situation close to the one described was all too real in Cape Town, South Africa, only a year ago. There, the city came within a gnat’s whisker of running out of water and drastic measures were imposed. But London in 2040? Surely the UK is in a different situation to South Africa? Well, possibly. But it would be foolish to ignore the threat that drought poses to even this green and pleasant isle – just remember the weather last summer.

Certainly, the chief executive of the Environment Agency is taking the prospect of severe droughts in the future seriously. In a speech in March this year, Sir James Bevan used the sort of language normally associated with an impassioned campaigner rather than a seasoned public servant. Even the title of the speech, ‘The Jaws of Death’, was dramatic enough.

Having stated that all the water companies’ business plans identify climate change as being their greatest operational risk, Bevan moved on to note that they all contain pretty much the same graph. One line plots increasing demand, while the other denotes decreasing availability. “Somewhere out along the timeline, usually around the 20-25 years from now mark, those lines cross,” said Bevan. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the jaws of death – the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs.”

The good news is that action is being taken to prepare the UK for the future. The most comprehensive report on the current situation and future needs was prepared by government infrastructure advisers the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and published in April last year. Entitled Preparing for a drier future: England’s water infrastructure needs, the document didn’t pull its punches. 

“A reliable water supply is usually taken for granted but, despite its reputation for rain, England risks water shortages,” it stated. “Climate change, an increasing population (especially in the drier south and east) and the need to protect the environment bring further challenges. The water supply system is already strained and the pressure will only rise over the coming decades... In the event of a serious drought, the nation faces an unacceptable risk of severe supply limitations and even homes and businesses being cut off.”

Saving water

The central finding of the report was that the government needs to take action to ensure at least an extra 4,000 million litres of water per day is made available, both from additional supply and reduced consumption. The cost of failing to do so would be hugely onerous: the NIC’s research found that building the necessary capacity would cost £21bn over the next 30 years, compared to an eye-watering £40bn if we were to respond to droughts through emergency measures, including, in extremis, importing water by sea.

To achieve the increased capacity, the report stated that additional infrastructure is required by the early 2030s in the form of reservoirs and desalination plants, as well as better links between areas to create a genuinely national water network. However, the report also argued that such new infrastructure only represents around a third of the solution. Leakage from existing pipes was also identified as a major problem.As a result, it said DEFRA should set an objective for the water industry to halve leakage by 2050. Ofwat, the industry’s economic regulator, should agree five-yearly targets with each company as part of their normal business plans and report on their progress, it added. 

Graphic of additional water capacity requirements

However, the report also stated that consumers cannot be absolved of responsibility: households and businesses alike need to reduce consumption. To help achieve this, it said, DEFRA should amend regulations to require all water companies “to consider systematic roll out of smart meters as a first step in a concerted campaign to improve water efficiency”.

Speaking to ENDS, Manuela di Mauro, the NIC’s senior technical adviser on water infrastructure, said the government’s response since the report was published – not least through November’s draft National Policy Statement for Water Resources Infrastructure – has been encouraging. “There is a clear economic argument for increasing the capacity of England’s water system, and we are seeing progress,” she says. 

“Government plans to improve the resilience of England’s water supply, halve water leakages by 2050 and explore increased resilience in future water resource management plans are in line with NIC recommendations. There is a 1% annual chance of severe restrictions on water use, and government expects companies to halve this – but, we think they should go further and secure a higher resilience standard in line with our recommendations.”

Reservoir reservations

In terms of reservoirs, there are only two new facilities on the horizon: at Abingdon in Oxfordshire and Havant Thickett near Portsmouth (see box). Given the pressing need for additional supply, that may seem surprising. After all, such facilities are notoriously time-consuming to develop, both in terms of getting through the planning system and to build. 


Potential new reservoirs in England 

Thames Water Abingdon reservoir

The Thames Water Abingdon reservoir is a proposed clean water reservoir, south-west of Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Proposals were first made in 2006 by Thames Water. In 2007 the Environment Agency noted that need for the reservoir was not proven and the proposals were officially rejected in 2011.New proposals for the reservoir to be built by 2043 in response to projected population growth in the region were released by Thames Water in 2018. The proposals include a transfer system to serve the London region. 

Havant Thicket reservoir

Havant Thickett, north of Portsmouth, would be owned and operated by Portsmouth Water, but would be a regional resource. Most of the water would actually be used by Southern Water. The proposed project has come about through regional planning that has been taking off over the past five to 10 years in the south-east and east of England. 


They are also inherently controversial given the vast areas of land they consume, almost certainly in rural areas. While many of the objections to new reservoirs can be dismissed as ‘nimbyism’, it has to be said that such protesters can legitimately point to the poor performance of some projects. 

On that front, Kielder in Northumberland is something of a whipping boy. The reservoir was designed in the 1960s, built in the 1970s and opened by the Queen in 1981, a timescale that serves to underline the point that these things take time. But the major issue with Kielder is that by the time it opened it was also hopelessly out of date. 

“Some of the objection is about nimbyism, but some of it is about risking another white elephant like Kielder and saying it should be done in a more incremental way,” says Rob Lawson, chair of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management’s water resources panel and director at consultancy Artesia.

“It was meant to serve the predicted industrial demand in the north-east. Obviously, that never materialised because of deindustrialisation, recession, the closure of the pits and so on. It was built on an extrapolation of how demand had grown over the previous years and without any real consideration for wider economic drivers for the next 30 years.” 

Today, Kielder is unusual in the national context in that it is a far bigger resource than is actually required in terms of consumer and industrial demand. “It is used, but in terms of the proportion of the volume that is used  for water resource it is tiny,” Lawson adds. “It’s mainly used as an amenity. It’s seen as an exemplar of how to do water resource planning these days.”

Streamlined planning

Of course, the way in which future requirements are calculated has moved on. The government, for its part, recognises the need for the planning process for new water infrastructure to be expedited, hence its consultation recently on the draft national policy statement (NPS), including proposals intended to further smooth the consenting process for such projects.

Reservoirs – and other crucial water infrastructure projects such as desalination plants – are already eligible to be fast-tracked through the nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP) regime, provided they fall within certain thresholds. The process is still onerous in terms of environmental impact assessments, among much else, but it does hand responsibility for determining such applications to the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately the secretary of state, rather than local planning authorities. 

The latter are self-evidently more likely to be swayed by local political concerns than a national body charged with considering the national interest, hence the introduction of the NSIP regime in the first place. “NSIP essentially streamlines the planning process – the purpose of it is to accelerate these kinds of plans,” says Lawson.

However, the draft NPS is important because it establishes a clear national need for water infrastructure projects. It proposes that, if an NSIP is identified in a water company’s final water resource management plan, then the need for that project will have been established as part of a development consent order application.

Current efforts to enable greater transfer of water between areas are unlikely to qualify for NSIP status, as these are of insufficient scale to meet the criteria for designation. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Geoff Darch, water resources strategy manager at Anglian Water, says that creating a greater distribution network is a major priority for his company, which has responsibility for some of the UK’s fastest growing cities. 

“On the supply side, the key thing for us is about balancing areas of surplus and areas of deficit,” says Darch. “Some of our water resource zones, particularly to the north around Lincolnshire, have surpluses, whereas others will be in deficit in the near future. So, our major theme for our seventh asset management plan (AMP7) is to link those areas. We’re doing that by creating a set of regional interconnecting pipelines. It’s a big investment – about £500m – and will be completed by 2025.”

However, Darch adds that beyond 2025 there is the potential to work on transfer projects with its neighbouring water companies. “There is a whole host of activity going on,” he says. “We do a lot of work with our neighbours and we have been talking about whether they will need to change in the future. I think cross-boundary transfer is the direction of travel.” 

Then there is the small matter of leakage, which apart from occasional pollution incidents provides the water companies with their greatest public relations challenge. It is clear the NIC wants the government to go further. As part of their next AMPs, which will cover the 2020-25 period and are at various stages of being signed off by DEFRA, the water companies were encouraged by Ofwat to commit to a target of reducing leaks by 15% over the period, something which doesn’t quite meet the NIC’s demand for statutory requirements. 

According to one senior observer, however, many companies may nevertheless have bitten off more than they can chew. “It’s quite revelatory that the companies have all gone so enthusiastically for the 15% reduction in AMP7 without much idea about how they are going to do it,” he says. “I think they went for it because the negative impact that would have happened if they hadn’t gone for it. Once one or two jumped the rest felt they had to.”

At Anglian, however, Darch is confident his company will be able to go above and beyond the 15% target and notes that by the end of the year it will have invested £128m on preventing leakage in the previous five years. “We’ve committed to go to 22% reduction by 2025,” he says. “The incremental costs of going further are expensive, but it’s something our customers have told us is really important and we recognise we have a responsibility to do it. By 2045 we want to get down to a position where leakage is less than 10% of what we put into our distribution network.”

In a report published in April on the government’s draft NPS, the Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee concluded that, while streamlining the planning process for large-scale supply infrastructure is important, this “should not obscure the need to mitigate the requirement for new supply as far as possible”.

Reducing demand

In recent years there has been some progress on decreasing demand for water resources – although nothing like enough. According to Nathan Richardson, policy and projects manager at Waterwise, which campaigns on the issue, in the 1960s UK citizens used around 80 litres of water per day. Consumption hit a peak of 150 litres a few years ago and has since come down, but only to 140 litres. 

“Some of the water companies have ramped up their campaigns over the last five years,” says Richardson. “It used to be quite a niche bit of their business, but it has become more mainstream. However, Ofwat recently did a report that looked at whether we could get back around 80 litres a day and concluded that there was no technical reason why not.”

Unfortunately, while there has been a genuine step change in terms of targets on leakage in the water companies’ plans, the same cannot be said for reducing demand. In the current asset management period, the average target for reducing demand was 5%, according to Richardson, but that has only increased to 6% for the 2020-25 period. 

Richardson would like government to engage with the water companies on demand in the same way it has applied pressure on leakage. “We’d like to see government set a target of 100 litres or less to drive the effort and give it a bit of focus,” he says, adding that his understanding is that a consultation on the issue is expected imminently. “I think that’s a really positive move if we can get a long-term target nailed down.”

So, while progress is being made, it is clear that when it comes to water resilience there is still a long way to go. And getting that right cannot involve a single magic bullet. Rather, efforts must be redoubled on three fronts – infrastructure, leakage and reducing demand. It is the holy trinity of water resource planning.


Global Water shortages: a story of shrinking reservoirs and growing tensions

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), Cape Town is far from alone in terms of drought risk. Using satellite imaging, as well as other methods, the WRI is monitoring reservoir levels around the world and last year identified Morocco, India, Iraq and Spain as particularly vulnerable to water shortages. 

For instance, it noted that the surface area of Morocco’s second largest dam shrank by 60% between 2015 and 2018. In 2016, the country was hit by the worst drought in three decades, followed by delayed and insufficient rainfall in 2017. Recent rainfall has improved the situation, but Morocco could still face water shortages in the coming summer and beyond, it said.

Meanwhile, drought in central India left two provinces in conflict over dwindling water supplies. The Narmada river flows east to west through the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, then through the state of Gujarat before emptying into the Arabian Sea. Poor rains in 2017 led to an argument over how much water should be released from the Indira Sagar reservoir in Madhya Pradesh to the downstream Sardar Sarovar reservoir in Gujarat.


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