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Despite the rain, potential UK water shortages still loom

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Graham Mann
I have been in the Water & Waste Water industry for 30 years and formed a Water Consultancy business called H2o Building Services both myself and my team have built a wealth of knowledge and expertise Saving companies money on their Water bi
  • Despite the rain, potential UK water shortages still loom

The last 18 months leading up to March 2024 saw a record amount of rainfall across England, with Press Association analysis of Met Office statistics showing that 1,695.9mm of rain has fallen since October 2022.

This, the Guardian reports, is the highest level for any 18-month period in the country since comparable data first started to be collected back in 1836.

March itself saw 62 per cent more rainfall than average, with many counties seeing at least double the amount of rain than would be considered typical, including Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Cornwall and Gloucestershire.

Given all this wet weather, it might seem a bit of a stretch to suggest that water shortages and hosepipe bans could well be the reality come the summertime if conditions turn hot and dry – but this is exactly what scientists are now predicting because of a failure to store all this rainwater properly.

For example, no new major reservoirs have been built in the last 30 years or so, wetlands have either been drained, farmed or built over and rivers have been engineered so that water flows more quickly into towns and cities, which leads to flooding. Water shortages are the inevitable consequence of this resource mismanagement when the weather warms up.

These shortages mean that public supply will take priority over other uses, such as industry and agriculture, which will face abstraction restrictions that could mean operations have to come to a halt for some time. Bans will also likely be imposed on filling up ponds and swimming pools, as well as cleaning municipal buildings, washing cars and watering gardens.

Speaking to the Guardian, professor Hannah Cloke – water specialist at the University of Reading – observed that while it’s always beneficial to see high water supply levels as spring and summer approach, different regions may still see supplies dwindle if an extended dry spell manifests.

“Unfortunately, these all or nothing periods of rainfall we are experiencing in the UK are likely to increase as heat continues to build up in the atmosphere and oceans. We need to realise that our water infrastructure is creaking and requires billions of pounds of investment,” she said.

The expert continued, noting that as population growth continues to expand, water supplies are being put increasingly at risk. Rainfall patterns are also changing because of climate change and there has been insufficient investment in the changes required to “plug the gaps”.

“We have already seen in some areas what happens when high demand for water follows prolonged periods of drought: the pipes can run dry,” Ms Cloke warned.

Jamie Hannaford, hydrologist with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, made further comments, saying that despite the incredibly wet winter, if below-average rainfall is seen over the next few months or so, coupled with high temperatures, pressure could be put on water supplies in places with limited groundwater storage.

Regions such as upland northern and western parts of the country rely on reservoirs and rivers for water, but these sources can be rapidly depleted if spring brings with it warm, dry weather – even after a particularly wet winter, he added.

Why could water shortages still be seen?

There are various factors at play that could see water shortages become a reality, despite heavy rainfall over the last year and a half.

Climate change, for example, means that the UK can no longer solely rely on its annual rainfall levels to replenish natural water sources.

Previously, it seemed unnecessary to make investments in water storage facilities because there was so much rain to play around with, but as Mr Hannaford explains, water shortages are now becoming more frequent occurrences after flood events.

He cited the summers of 2018 and 2022 where exceptional drought conditions were seen, with exceptional floods taking place in between, with recent years displaying a “pattern of hydrological volatility”.

Destruction of natural habitats like wetlands is also having an impact, as these used to store a huge amount of water, but as the centuries have gone on, land has been dried out to make it easier to build on and to work for agriculture.

Farming practices also see the soil stripped of its nutrients and organisms, which makes it sandier – and this means that water is no longer stored in the ground, but falls through the soil and ends up in waterways instead.

And, of course, water leaks are a big problem for a large part of the country, with billions of litres of water lost each day to leakage.

The big issue here is that much of the sewer network dates back to Victorian times and is no longer fit for purpose, with significant investment now required to ensure it can withstand the pressures of 21st-century society… investment that water suppliers seem somewhat reluctant to make.

Water usage is another reason why shortages may be seen this year, despite the amount of rain we’ve seen recently.

Businesses and individuals alike can do a lot to reduce their water footprint and help safeguard resources for future generations. For example, rainwater harvesting can prove particularly beneficial, as can installing energy-efficient appliances, investing in sustainable urban drainage systems and water recycling.

For corporations, the first step towards reducing your water usage and consumption is to have a water audit of your site carried out. This will show you how and where you’re using water, so you can determine the best way to go about conserving supplies and start operating more efficiently.

Great for business and our environment!

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