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How do we ensure enough water in 2050?

In his keynote speech at Waterwise, Sir James Bevan of the UK’s Environment Agency said we must tackle both sides of the equation: reduce demand and increase supply.

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We must work to both reduce water demand and increase supply, said Bevan
We must work to both reduce water demand and increase supply, said Bevan

Unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs in 20-25 years’ time, according to Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the UK’s Environment Agency, speaking at the Waterwise Conference this week.

 

Bevan described what is sometimes called the ‘jaws of death’ graph where the two lines showing predicted water demand over the next several decades (which in all the water company plans goes up as more as more people, homes, and businesses appear over time) and the water that will be available to supply those needs (which in all the water company plans goes down as the effects of climate change are felt) cross each other.

 

The reality of climate change

 

To deal with this, Bevan said we must first understand what’s happening. “Climate change is what’s happening. It means that in the UK we will have hotter and drier summers. By 2040, we expect more than half of our summers to exceed 2003 temperatures," he said.

 

Bevan continued: “That will mean more water shortages: by 2050, the amount of water available could be reduced by 10-15 per cent, with some rivers seeing 50-80 per cent less water during the summer months. It will mean higher drought risk, caused by the hotter drier summers and less predictable rainfall."

 

The result of this is that based on the present projections, many parts of our country will face significant water deficits by 2050, especially in the south east where much of the UK population lives.

 

Alongside climate change, of course, Bevan points to the growth in the UK population, which is expected to rise from 67m now to 75 million in 2050.

“The cost-benefit of blue/green infrastructure is striking: there is compelling evidence that people who live near water or green space, or have regular access to it, are happier, healthier and more productive"

Bevan advocates that both sides of the equation are tackled: reduce demand and increase supply.

“We can reduce demand by reducing leakage, by more water metering, sustainable drainage systems, insisting on new building regulations to drive greater water efficiency, and finding ways to cut down the amount of water we each use as individuals.

 

“And we can increase supply by a mix of methods, all of which we’ll need to pursue. We will need to see more water transfers between regions from areas of water surplus to areas of deficit. There’s scope to do much more here: currently only 4 per cent of water supplies are transferred between individual water companies.”

 

Need for new infrastructure

 

This requires more desalination plants and also reservoirs and creating some of this new infrastructure will be challenging, he said, especially given the UK has not built a new reservoir for decades. "Largely because clearing all the planning and legal hurdles necessary is so difficult and local opposition so fierce."

 

But while there will be political challenges, there should be less difficulty over the economics, he reckoned, because the investment needed to build the infrastructure to increase resilience is "modest" compared with the cost of not doing it.

 

He said there is strong support from the National Infrastructure Commission for this approach, referencing its 2018 report on national infrastructure needs that highlighted the risk of extreme drought, supported the twin track approach of investing to enhance supply and reduce demand, and noted that the investment cost of resilience (£21bn) is roughly half the cost of an extreme drought (£40bn).

 

He added that a 2016 report produced by the water companies, the Environment Agency and others came to the same conclusion: that investing in water resilience was both affordable and cost-beneficial. “That report calculated that while a severe drought would cost each household more than £100, the cost per household of the investment that would greatly reduce the risk was only £4 a year.”

"We will need to see more water transfers between regions from areas of water surplus to areas of deficit"

Bevan went on to explain some of the work of the Environment Agency is doing with the water companies and Ofwat as well as the government. It is also heavily engaged in: “sustainable placemaking”, working with planning authorities, businesses and local communities to design towns, cities and other places which put the sustainable use of water at the heart of their design and functioning.

 

He said: “The Oxford Milton Keynes Cambridge Arc is a great opportunity to showcase how this could be done, and we are working closely with all those involved to ensure that the blue and green infrastructure (the water and the nature) gets as much attention as the grey infrastructure (the houses, the roads and the industries).

 

“The cost-benefit of blue/green infrastructure is striking: there is compelling evidence that people who live near water or green space, or have regular access to it, are happier, healthier and more productive. Investment in a new wetland, a cleaned up river or a tree plantation is not just a good thing because it creates beauty and habitat. It is also a removal of cost from the NHS.”

 

To read Sir James Bevan’s full speech, go to: Escaping the jaws of death: ensuring enough water in 2050

 

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