The persistent lack of rain this spring, following two successive dry winters, means that the East, South-East and parts of Yorkshire are officially in drought and reminds us that water is a precious resource that needs to be carefully managed, both now and in the future.
Water companies are constantly planning for the future, and detailed preparations for drought conditions, working with the Environment Agency and Government, mean that water restrictions have been put in place for seven water companies in England. If climate change scientists are correct, the future could be even more challenging, since the water industry’s raw material is directly dependent on the natural environment,
The impact of climate change on the water industry
Hotter, drier summers have been predicted, but it’s still hard to say whether this is the new normal, or part of a longer – and eventually wetter – cycle. This means that we have to think hard about how we catch the rain when we can, and what implications this has for water storage across the UK. There could be an increase in the severity, intensity and frequency of extreme events, such as droughts, storms and floods, which means we need to consider how the industry’s infrastructure will cope in the future.
Droughts have an impact not just on the public water supply, but on our many diverse ecosystems, and we have to think about how best to balance protection for our natural environment with our duty to provide clean, fresh water for our customers.
Intense rainfall in the future may mean our sewerage infrastructure will struggle to cope with the volume. In addition, chemicals and other pollutants travel with the fast-flowing water into rivers and streams, affecting water quality.
Furthermore, the effects of climate change may not be the same across the UK, which means that every company has a different set of considerations and priorities.
Managing water and wastewater services for customers is energy intensive, and the work of the water companies involves about 3% of energy used in the UK. Most of this is used to pump water and wastewater and to run treatment plants, to ensure our water meets strict environmental and health quality standards. The water industry works with government, regulators and other groups to strike a balance between achieving these quality standards and reducing energy consumption to mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is a major challenge that the industry is facing.
The work of delivering water and wastewater services creates 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalent) every year, although companies are working hard to reduce that amount. We are becoming more efficient at abstracting, treating and supplying water and wastewater services, and we are looking at ways of using renewable energy – from anaerobic digestion to hydropower – to reduce our carbon footprint; trying to meet ever more stringent quality standards, which often have little environmental or health benefits, while doing so is increasingly difficult.
The industry is working on ways to improve how we measure our carbon footprint – this needs to be consistent across the industry. Companies are producing or implementing carbon management plans that will take this into consideration.
Companies are adapting their business and investment plans to minimise the effect of climate change. We are building knowledge and capacity within the industry to take account of the impacts of climate change on existing infrastructure, assets and operations, and modelling a range of different scenarios. There is a great deal of activity focused on the management of water resources and measures from improved water efficiency, leakage management and developing new resources.
In June 2011, Defra published reports from each company which identified the risks that climate change will pose to their service, and what actions they are taking to address them. At the time, Lord Henley said he was “delighted that these reports show the positive action water companies are already taking to address the long term risks of climate change, but with water integral to our very lives there is no time for complacency and more work needs to be done to secure the long term sustainability of our water supply”.
More recently, the government has put in place a programme of research and meetings to get those with a particular interest in adapting to climate change and the natural environment to consider what common ground they have, and how we can adapt our forests, fields, farms and reservoirs to make them more robust against a changing climate.
Water UK is pleased that the government has recognised that companies are planning for the adaptation that the industry needs to make to ensure it is resilient; we are pleased to be active participants in the adaptation process.