‘Existential risk’: Public must ‘pay more’ for water to head off shortages, says EA chair

Water bill increases will be necessary to help build the infrastructure needed to help tackle future water shortages in England, the Environment Agency's chair Alan Lovell has warned.

Alan Lovell. Source - Gov.uk

In a speech at the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators in London yesterday, Lovell stressed the need to “grip the existential risk of supply and demand” by asking people to “save water and pay more for it.”

The amount of water available in England could be reduced by up to 15% by 2050 and some rivers could have between 50 and 80% less water during the summer, according to Lovell.

“If significant action is not prioritised, by 2050 around 4,000 million extra litres of water will be needed every day,” he said. “Climate change and population growth mean the need for significant action grows every year.”

He added that people need to reduce their water use by 33 litres a day – from 143 litres per day to 110, to “meet future resource pressures.” This means that people will need to “change their habits” which is “notoriously difficult", he said. 

The EA chair described water as “a limited and precious commodity” and urged “bill increases”, arguing that these are “necessary for the infrastructure we need.”

He also called on water companies to “make metering, preferably smart-metering, compulsory where possible”.

But he stressed that “families must be protected from unexpectedly large increases in bills”.

Lovell warned “we cannot ask for public cooperation unless the water sector can prove it is cleaning up its act”.

According to the Environment Agency, water companies in England lost more than a trillion litres of water in 2021-22. They need to "accelerate action” to reduce leaks, "regain the public’s trust" and "invest in capacity." 

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The last reservoir opened in England in 1991 and there will not be another new one until 2029. “This 38-year gap has left us more exposed to heatwaves and population growth,” he said.

He added that farmers also have a role to play by “improving farming practices, including irrigation and, where appropriate, building more on-site reservoirs.”

Lovell, who is a former chair of the Consumer Council for Water, concluded: “The biggest challenge facing the water environment today is supply and demand, but without public action to save water and pay more for it, we are all lost at sea.”

Responding to the EA chair’s call to action, an Ofwat spokesperson said: “Finding new sustainable ways to maintain water supply across the country is vital, due to weather changes caused by climate change, the increase in population and economic development.”

The spokesperson added: “We are pleased with the progress of solutions to date and collaboration between water companies continues to remain positive; we are seeing some real advancement.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “We’ve put the strictest targets ever on water companies to clean up our waters and worked closely with the regulator to drive tougher enforcement against underperforming and polluting companies, including clamping down on excessive cash pay-outs.”

But the spokesperson admitted: “We know that more needs to be done which is why we will go further and faster to hold companies to account in delivering for customers and our environment.”