‘Exceptional is the new normal’: EA drought lead highlights need for water efficiency

The Environment Agency’s drought chief has warned that “exceptional is the new normal” as climate change takes effect, and that water efficiency will be key in ensuring future water supplies are maintained.

Speaking at the 2023 Waterwise conference on Tuesday, John Leyland, executive director for environment and business at the Environment Agency (EA), and recently appointed chair of the National Drought Group, warned that “exceptional is becoming the normal” when it comes to weather.

He said: “Climate change and population growth will mean that we will run out of water unless we change faster than the environment.”

Leyland said that promoting water efficiency is essential, and the EA is currently carrying out a study into temporary usage bans, more commonly known as hosepipe bans. However, he added that government agencies such as the EA need to “demonstrate that [they] are meeting [their] end of the bargain too”.

He noted that water companies in England were found to be collectively leaking over two  billion litres of water a day, as reported by The Times last summer. Another concern he raised is the fact that a new reservoir hasn’t been built since 1991, and won’t be until 2029. He called for more infrastructure and policy support to safeguard water supply.

“These are not easy decisions but we have got to move them and we have got to make them quick,” Leyland added.

He also emphasised that drought should not be thought of as something that is “short term” as it is “not over when the rain starts”.

This point was reiterated by Natural Resources Wales chief executive, Clare Pillman.

“Last summer felt exceptional,” she said. “For a long time we have been saying that hotter drier summers will be the norm, and we saw that.

“Getting the message about why water efficiency is important across to people is a really high priority.”

Last year, Wales declared a drought for the first time since 1989, but Pillman noted that Wales faces a challenge in terms of public perception, as it is seen as a ‘wet country’. In October, both drought warnings and flood warnings were released at the same time, posing a challenge to the country’s information campaign.

Speaking earlier at the conference, Ofwat’s director of policy, Beth Corbould, and Rob Lawson, director and co-owner of environment consultancy Artesia, said that lessons must be learnt about demand and supply from the summer droughts.

Corbould said that reducing demand is a focus for Ofwat in its 2024 Price Review period. It is set to introduce a fund of up to £100 million to help stimulate a “transformative, sustained and measurable reduction in water demand nationally, using a range of water efficiency approaches”, which she said will go out for consultation soon.

“If we don’t achieve these demand reductions the alternatives could be very costly,” she continued.

Lawson said a shift to focusing on and anticipating demand will be essential going forward, whereas traditionally preparations for drought have focused on supply. This is because, unsurprisingly, there is a “very close relationship between consumer demand and temperature”.

In response to a question asked by ENDS on what sort of policy shift he anticipates this could require, he said a “more concerted effort by all stakeholders to raise the awareness of water scarcity” would help, as would facilitating communication between water companies and other stakeholders to reduce demand earlier in the summer.