England faces another drought this summer unless the country receives above average rainfall in coming months, according to the latest assessment by the country’s environmental watchdog.
A preliminary analysis by the Environment Agency of the impact of the recent wet weather on water levels found that most of England was “still in drought” in mid-December, with some reservoir levels well below normal levels.
The findings came despite the agency having dozens of flood warnings and alerts in place and raises the prospect of a repeat of the widespread hosepipe bans that were put in place last August during the driest summer for 50 years.
The heatwave in 2022 put the spotlight on issues of water security and leakage as scientists warned climate change would lead to hotter and drier summers in future. The focus reignited the debate about the effectiveness of England’s privatised water system, in which a fifth of the water supplied is lost every year.
Fixing the many leaks is a large part of drought-proofing the country but not the only solution. “Over winter we expect water companies to fix and reduce leaks, identify new sources of water and work with farmers, growers and other sectors to protect our precious water resources should drought remain next year,” said John Leyland, Environment Agency executive director, when he warned in November of possible water shortages in 2023.
At the core of the problem is the ageing water infrastructure, some of which is 150 years old. Leaks are commonplace across the 350,000km network of pipes that criss-cross the country but are often small and invisible from ground level making them hard to pinpoint.
“The network is so vast that even if you were to add a significant investment you couldn’t say ‘we could redo every pipe that’s older than 20 years,’” said Nicole Metje, professor of infrastructure monitoring at the University of Birmingham. “It takes time and people to fix [leaks].”
Leakage has declined by roughly a third since 1992, shortly after privatisation in 1989, but the rate of progress slowed from about 2011. French leakage rates are similar to the UK’s, but Germany and Japan — which have replaced more of their old pipes — perform better, according to trade body Water UK.
Many British water companies lack complete maps of their pipe networks, and efforts to fix leaks are often reactive, prompted by someone reporting a problem. Metje said the replacement programme would benefit from greater use of so-called “smart pipes” that monitor water flow in real time. “I think we’re missing a trick” by not installing smart systems during routine upgrades, she added.
The government has set the industry a target to halve leakage rates by 2050, while Ofwat has set a five-year target of a 16 per cent reduction by 2025.
But critics said the industry regulator’s targets were too soft and the level of fines it can levy for missing them are too small. They have urged the watchdog to clamp down on water companies when it sets how much they can charge customers in the next five-year regulatory period from 2025.
“Too much money has been taken out of the sector [by investors] which could have gone into investments,” said Nathan Richardson, head of policy and strategy at campaign group Waterwise. Ofwat said leakage was at the lowest level since privatisation and that it would “keep pushing [companies] on this issue”.
But the government’s own infrastructure advisory body has warned that fixing leaks would not be enough to drought-proof the country as the climate changes.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has estimated that an extra 3,500mn to 4,000mn litres of water per day would be needed by 2050, a figure that also takes into account the growing population. That compares to the roughly 2,900mn lost daily through leakage.
The NIC has long called for a more holistic approach to tackling water scarcity, including reducing demand and increasing supply, moving water from wetter to dryer regions and using water meters more effectively.
In 2018, it warned that “without further action there is roughly a one in four chance over the next 30 years that large numbers of households will have their water supply cut off for an extended period because of a severe drought”.
The NIC also recommended a change in the law that would allow a nationwide roll out of smart water metres, to help track demand and identify problems. At present only companies in drier regions in England are allowed to implement compulsory metering.
John Armitt, the NIC’s chair, last August argued that reducing demand would “result in quicker wins” than fixing leaks, adding that the “reluctance by government to commit to compulsory water metering” demonstrated the need for “a public debate about risks, solutions and costs”.
Last year, the Climate Change Committee, another government advisory body, urged ministers to set targets for reducing household and business water use.
Although ministers have said they want water consumption to fall to 110 litres per person per day by 2050, from about 142 litres today, the goal is not legally binding and does not cover businesses, which account for more than a quarter of public water supply needs.
Philip Dunne, chair of the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, backed the NIC’s call for a “more holistic” approach to help identify priority areas for investment. Given the state of the network, “we’ve clearly not done enough”, he said.
The government said protecting water resources was “a priority” and that it was pushing water companies to develop new supplies “as well as taking action to ensure resilience including investment in new reservoirs”.
Water UK said its members were “increasingly using innovative solutions, such as drones and artificial intelligence, to find and fix leaks as soon as possible,” but agreed that tackling leakage was only “part of the solution”.