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Water companies must do more to tackle water scarcity in England, warns NAO

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  • Water companies must do more to tackle water scarcity in England, warns NAO

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National Audit Office (NAO)
The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament. Our public audit perspective helps Parliament hold UK government to account and improve public services.
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England must take more concerted action now to prevent parts of the country, especially the south-east, from running out of water within 20 years, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

The country’s total water supply is forecast to drop by 7% by 2045 because of climate change and the limits of sustainable abstraction.1 Almost all of the public water supply is obtained through abstraction from ground and surface water sources, but abstracting too much water can lead to physical changes that reduce biodiversity.

Even at current levels of average rainfall, a reduction of 480 million litres per day of water consumption is needed nationally within 25 years to restore abstraction to sustainable levels. Drier weather is forecast to further reduce water supplies by 600 million litres per day. Taken together therefore, water sourced through abstraction nationally each day is due to decline by over a billion litres over the next 25 years. This means that, without action, some parts of the country – particularly the South East – will run out of water.

The country’s total water supply is forecast to drop by 7% by 2045 because of climate change and the limits of sustainable abstraction

Reducing demand is essential to prevent water shortages. Over the last five years, water companies have made little or no progress in reducing water consumption and cutting leakage. Water companies have signed up to reduce leakage by 15% or more by 2025 but there is a risk that they may not meet these targets and government should monitor progress to ensure that water companies have contingency plans.

Efforts to reduce water consumption with the public and businesses have not been successful. The government committed to announcing a personal water consumption target by the end of 2018, but has not yet done so. It has relied on water companies to get its message across about the importance of reducing water consumption, but there is no evidence this has had any impact on consumer behaviour and average consumption continues to rise. Government attempts to reduce non-household water consumption through increased competition have also not succeeded.

Over the last five years, water companies have made little or no progress in reducing water consumption and cutting leakage

Water companies need to work together across geographical boundaries to improve the resilience of the water supply. The government has taken positive steps to encourage this by publishing a national planning framework which aims to bring together industry, regulators and government to develop regional plans by the end of 2021. But so far there has been only limited collaboration and most companies continue to develop solutions largely within their own geographical area.

The report concludes the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) should promote a more coherent and credible message about water efficiency and develop a plan to evaluate its impact. The government should lead on getting the message across that consumers need to save water.

Defra should identify opportunities to work with other government departments to reduce water consumption by large public sector users, like hospitals and schools. It should also better understand how willing customers are to pay more to improve water infrastructure. This involves reviewing water companies’ customer research and commissioning its own, if necessary.

Defra, the regulator Ofwat and the Environment Agency should regularly review water companies’ progress on reducing consumption and leakage, the report recommends.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The government has made limited progress on reducing water consumption, tackling leakage and sharing water resources between regions in the last five years, but rapid progress is now vital for the government to deliver its objective of a resilient water supply. Defra needs to provide stronger leadership to water companies, regulators and consumers.”