Who’s abstracting England?

Data obtained by ENDS shows for the first time the sectors and companies that are abstracting England’s water, the quantities they are licensed to take and where those abstractions are licensed to occur

“This is the frontline of the climate crisis,” says Paul Hickey, head of water resources at the Environment Agency (EA). “I don’t think it’s understood in this nation that we are water scarce.”

The climate crisis has truly arrived in England. Three consecutive dry years have led to parts of the south-east suffering from the lowest groundwater levels ever recorded, with rivers struggling with their lowest flows and some stretches drying up completely. Many now resemble muddy ditches or are so overgrown that the casual onlooker would never know a river once ran there. 

Right now in the Chilterns, two-thirds of the river Ver is bone dry, along with stretches of many other globally rare chalk streams in the area. Speaking at a conference on chalk streams last month, former Undertones frontman turned rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey described the situation as a “national disgrace” and Ofwat chief executive Rachel Fletcher noted there is a “south-east water crisis”, despite the problem also extending to the north of England

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


Sharkey and the handful of people who have been banging the drum about dwindling water supplies are becoming ever more frustrated. Even the rhetoric being employed by EA chief executive Sir James Bevan is becoming increasingly doom-laden. Earlier this year he warned that a “jaws of death” scenario – the time when demand for water exceeds supply – is close at hand. 

But so far, the message has not penetrated far beyond Whitehall and the industry bubble, leaving the public largely unaware of the potential threat to the nation’s water supply.  As Hickey points out, localised heavy rainfall and flooding has exacerbated the problem, making it tricky for ‘use less water’ messaging to hit home with any meaningful impact. 

“It stems from the fact that it rains all the time, so people think we’ve got tonnes of water and there isn’t a problem,” he concludes. 

As the “jaws of death” approach, it seems inevitable that tensions over the use of scarce water supplies will play out. In particular, as the country nears crisis point, concern is growing about the impact of abstraction on natural environments, such as England’s chalk streams. 

So who is abstracting England’s water? ENDS has analysed the EA’s abstraction licence database (accurate as of June this year), following a freedom of information request, to find out which activities and organisations are licensed to consume the most water and from which catchments they can take it. 

Generating energy

At a glance, the picture seems clear: the amount of water licensed to be used in energy production (see figure) far outweighs volumes licensed for use for any other purpose. But the true picture is more complicated. Much of this water is used by hydropower schemes, most of which return it to the river a short distance downstream in a short space of time and are therefore not consumptive and have minimal impact on supplies. 

However, hydropower schemes that return the water to a different stretch of river can “deplete reaches because a lot of water is taken and not returned at the same point”, says Hickey. “But the balance as a whole remains unchanged.”

The Canal and River Trust, which manages 2,000 miles of waterways in the UK, holds licences to abstract 4,716 billion litres for energy production each year. The organisation has commercial agreements with a number of hydro electric power schemes and says on its website it is “always looking for ways to harness the power of our water and looking at installing hydro schemes wherever appropriate”. 

Large volumes of water for energy are used for cooling in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, with many situated on the coast so they can make use of tidal water. Energy provider Uniper is licensed to take 3,966 billion litres of water each year for use at its gas power generation plants at power stations, including the Cottam Development Centre in Nottinghamshire, its Enfield plant, Grain in Kent, Killingholme in North Lincolnshire and Taylor’s Lane in Willesden, London. It also has a coal-fired power plant in Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire. 

Unslakable thirst

If much of the water used for energy production is returned almost immediately, that leaves the water sector as the thirstiest industry. It is licensed to abstract a whopping 10,521 billion litres for public water supply every year. 

Naturally, the water companies serving the most densely populated areas are licensed to take the largest volumes of the water out of the system, with Thames and Anglian licensed to abstract 1,582 billion litres and 1,558 billion litres each year, respectively. 

But with population growth and climate change factored into future projections – two million extra people are expected to move into the Thames Water area by 2045 – Thames Water predicts that, without significant interventions, there will be supply-demand deficits in London of 106 million litres each day in 2024/25, rising to 587 million litres per day in 2099/2100. It also expect deficits, albeit smaller ones, in its Swindon and Oxfordshire, Slough, Wycombe and Aylesbury, and Guildford areas. 

Thames Water’s water resource management plan, setting out how it will meet future demand, should be signed off by DEFRA at some point next year, following wrangling between the utility and the department about the finer details, says Yvette de Garis, head of environmental engagement for the company. 

“We’ve concluded that there’s a need for a strategic resource,” says de Garis. “A big scheme to support the south-east of England” that would take the form of a major new reservoir at Abingdon, although it would not come on stream until 2038, she says. Once completed, the reservoir would be followed by a strategic water transfer from Wales, via a pipeline that would have to be built from scratch, she adds. 

In the medium term to 2030, the water firm’s plan includes five schemes, two of which aim to reduce pressure on water resources in the Thames Valley by buying spare abstraction licence volumes from the closure of Didcot power station and transferring water from the Midlands using the Oxford canal. 

Meanwhile, Thames Water has been working to reduce its abstractions to avoid damaging rivers in the Chilterns chalk stream area, says de Garis. She says the company has reduced four licences affecting the streams and is looking at changing another next year and slashing a further licence, at Hawridge, from 9.1 million litres per day to zero by March 2025. However, the investigations into the impacts of the Hawridge abstraction have not yet been carried out, so any changes are unlikely to take place for many years. 

Some of the biggest abstractors falling under the industrial use category include Sahaviriya Steel Industries, Esso Petroleum, Inovyn Chlorvinyls and Cargill, which use water mainly for cooling and in some cases for processing purposes.

Hidden consequences

When compared with water use for industry, energy production and public water supply, the volumes licensed for abstraction for agriculture appear relatively modest, but according to Hickey, the figure “masks huge regional variations”. The proportion of water taken from the east of England for agriculture is much greater than the overall national picture suggests, he says. 

The sector also wants to take most of its water during the summer, which puts more pressure on rivers and groundwater than the  headline figure might indicate, says Hickey. “A lot of people want to abstract [during the] growing season which is arguably when the environment is at its most risk,” he points out. 

“In East Anglia we spend half the year pumping water into the sea to mitigate flood risk and the other half abstracting water to irrigate crops,” Hickey says, simplifying the picture to make the point. 


But work is being done to lessen the impact of agriculture and to make it more resilient to drought, he says. In East Suffolk, a group of farmers, internal drainage boards and other abstractors are looking at developing a shared reservoir to capture the winter flow, Hickey says. 

“We want to help the sector. It’s the first to be impacted when there’s a drought because we can order them to stop spray irrigation at times of environmental stress. We want the sector to become more resilient so we don’t have to do that.

“If the farmers work well together there could be a case for earned autonomy”, which would be in line with the government’s “better regulation mindset”, says Hickey, and the agency could “ease back and reward that”.

So what is the Environment Agency doing? 

Standing in a dusty ditch where a sparkling chalk stream once flowed, it is hard to imagine much is being done to protect the water environment, but this is not so, says Hickey.

Behind the scenes, there’s “an enormous amount of work going on to improve water resource management”, he says, pointing out that the EA’s programme of altering “proven damaging abstraction licences”, is on track to be completed by its March 2020 deadline. 

The whole licensing scheme will eventually move under the environmental permitting regulations regime in 2021 and will “move into the digital environment... in a more dynamic way” so that permitting can be linked to water availability in close to real time, says Hickey.

The agency has also changed how it looks at long-term resilience, he says, bringing together regional stakeholder groups such as Water Resources East and Water Resources South East, which are made up of water companies, farmers, industry and regulators across catchments to take a “cross-sector view of the long-term needs and interventions needed, whether that’s new reservoirs, water transfers” or whatever might be needed. 

A new national water resource management framework looking at the national and regional interventions needed is due to be published by the agency in December, says Hickey. It will aim to strengthen regional planning and bring coherence to the way water is used for public supply, agriculture, thermal power and industry, drawing on catchment-based solutions as well as demand management and new supplies.

Ideas being floated as part of the framework include bringing water to the south-east from the north-west, down the Severn to the Thames so chalk stream abstractions can be reduced.

Ofwat’s Fletcher says the future is “not about getting water to the south-east at the least cost”, it is about “minimising the impact on the environment and maximising natural capital value”.

Major projects such as the water transfer scheme would take many years to come to fruition, but even seemingly quick and simple solutions such as reducing the permitted volumes in a damaging abstraction licence can take more than a decade. 

“It’s not as simple as just the proportion of water you’re taking,” says Thames Water’s de Garis. “You need to understand the impact that abstraction is having.” There will need to be an investigation, led by the water company, to assess whether the abstraction in question is damaging a river. If it determines that it is, then there will be an options appraisal in which different ways of meeting the water demand are assessed, and “if you can find a cost-effective way of doing it you’ll go ahead”. 

The investigation can take a long time because the “right weather conditions are needed to do the requisite surveys”,’ says de Garis, and the whole process must fit in with the water companies’ funding cycles. A firm might undertake an investigation in one five-year funding period, and if it is agreed that an intervention is needed, this would take place within the following five-year period. In the past, the options appraisal would have caused further delay, adding five years, says de Garis. 

The EA’s Hickey concedes that such an “iterative decision-making approach to the environment can lead to suboptimal solutions”.

The agency needs to “think about where we want to get to,” says Hickey. “Do we want to stop all significant abstractions on chalk streams knowing pressures will increase? If we take a long-term view on what the environment needs, we might do better.”

Hickey says the agency has started looking at optimising water use between Thames Water and neighbouring Affinity Water’s systems to protect the Chilterns chalk streams. “We need to be more agile in... how we balance abstractions.

Ofwat’s Fletcher agrees with the assessment. Speaking at the chalk streams conference, she said the “interconnectivity between the catchments in the south-east is really low” and that “a lot more could be done”.

Companies abstracting large volumes of water daily are obliged to submit water meter reports to the EA. But despite the agency having powers to take action against anyone illegally breaching their licence limits, few, if any, prosecutions appear to have taken place. 


Hickey says compliance visits are “ramped up during times of environmental stress” but is not able to give any examples of prosecutions. 

“Water theft is a real risk,” he says. “Abstractors worried about impacts on crops could illegally abstract, but we have a range of means to police that, such as earth observation data,” he adds, pointing out “things go green when you water them”.

This year, the agency has “done about 4,500 inspections, which is considerable effort” but a barrier to enforcement lies in the fact that the “consequence of over-abstraction is quite subtle and therefore it can be difficult to mount a case against someone”, Hickey says. 

“We need to sharpen our regulatory edge of water resource management in the context of the changing climate. To have a deterrent effect, a regulatory regime needs to have a credible system of enforcement.”

Hickey adds: “We’ve had three years of dry weather and we’ve got groundwater at the lowest levels ever recorded. We need to plan now so we’re as fit as we can be if we have a fourth dry winter because then we’ll be in quite a serious situation.”

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