Water companies follow a twin-track approach to ensuring security of supply for their customers. Both tracks feature in the 25-year water resource plans which all companies prepare, taking the advice of stakeholders including regulators and government.
On the demand side, the company promotes water efficiency through campaigns, investment in infrastructure improvements, reducing leakage through area-wide mains replacement, increasing the use of meters on a company-specific basis, and support for waterwise, the group that is making the economic case for water conservation with government, kitchen and bathroom appliance suppliers, and the construction industry, among others.
Second, the company seeks to enhance supply where necessary by planning new storage facilities, including reservoirs, improving connections between different parts of supply areas and between companies, and looking at desalination technology.
Trends and prospects for supply
Several powerful trends have combined to reduce supply.
Pollution from agriculture and industry has degraded water sources in some cases so severely that they have had to be decommissioned. Natural storage of water has been eroded; for example, wetlands have been drained to create more growing space. Planning policy has allowed more concrete to be poured, leading to faster run-off of rainwater and lower recharge of groundwater. The weather has become noticeably more intense, with the same effects.
Climate change will increase supply concerns, with wetter winters and drier summers. This may affect the overall volume of available water and reduce the quality of surface water for summer abstraction. We shall certainly need more winter storage. There is also a long-term threat to groundwater reserves from climate change. More violent rainfall events may result in surface flooding rather than infiltration to groundwater. Higher temperatures may lead to increased evaporation and transpiration and lower recharge of groundwater.
On the other hand, agricultural and environmental policy should help. Reform of EU agricultural policy, especially the move from production subsidy to environmental stewardship should reduce pollution.
The Water Framework Directive should help by improving the status of all water bodies, in particular protecting abstraction points for public supply. The introduction of integrated river basin management involving all responsible groups will put an important new spotlight on looking after local water assets.
Trends affecting demand
Demand has been increasing relentlessly for generations. There are different ways of looking at this. Some see it as a bad thing that threatens the environment for no good reason. Perhaps there is something in this, but the water industry sees it differently. We exist to meet customers’ demand for water services (while recognising our duty to help people use it efficiently). So we see higher demand as part of the success of the society we serve. Our higher standard of living has many water links – think about personal health and hygiene, enjoyment of gardens and green spaces in cities.
Look also at the remarkable changes in national demographics such the growth in single person households. This has been happening for years and for well known reasons, including longer life expectancy and more divorce. But the dramatic effect on water demand is less well known. According to the IPPR1, average per capita consumption in the Thames area moves from 124 litres per person per day to 201 litres as household size falls from 6 to 1. Then we have population change, notably the drift towards the South East, where density is already above average.
It must also be said that in the past 20 years we have put less effort into securing the balance between supply and demand (which includes promoting water efficiency and repairing leaky pipes) than other priorities like cleaning up pollution and improving drinking water quality. The “we” here of course refers to government, regulators and NGOs, as well as water companies.
Prospects for demand
We expect that economic growth, especially in major conurbations, will continue to stimulate demand for water. London expects to have 800,000 new citizens by 2015. Single person households will account for 35% of the UK total by 2021. Customer lifestyles and expectations will continue to develop.
The demand for new houses that led to the Barker Report and the Sustainable Communities Plan has caused a major public debate. The proposals have polarised attitudes. One consequence is that water (or the potential lack of it) has become a political football used by the Nimby tendency (Not in my back yard) and more extreme Banana groups (Build Absolutely Nothing, ANywhere At all) to question whether water supplies are sufficient to support new development.
1 Reporting research by Thames Water: Managing water resources and flood risk in the South East, Institute of Public Policy Research 2005.