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Future Water: The Government’s Water Strategy for England (2008)

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In England, the average person uses about 150 litres of water a day – that’s about a tonne a week! This is water that has been cleaned, treated and pumped from reservoirs, rivers and aquifers, and too much of it still leaks out of pipes before it ever gets into the home.

We’ve rightly come to expect some of the highest quality water in the world, and an almost endless supply, for brushing our teeth, filling a glass to drink, taking a shower in the morning or preparing food. But we also use this water to heat our homes and offices, clean our clothes, water our gardens, wash our cars and in thousands of industrial processes. And the more we use the less there is for the countryside and the wildlife around us.

Much of the water we use is then disposed of through sewers. We demand safe bathing water and good public health, so we clean sewage to high standards. But along with direct pollution, for example from agriculture, sewer discharges continue to cause problems for the natural environment of our rivers, lakes and seas.

The problem we face is this; because of our need to adapt to climate change, our water intensive lifestyle and other pressures such as changing land use, we need to find ways of using water much more efficiently and sustainably if we are to continue to enjoy high standards and constant supply.

The South East and East of England already face increasing demand on a finite water supply. The drought of 2004-06 was only managed through controls on what we could use water for. This was not a one-off; indeed droughts are likely to be more common. By 2080, some long term climate projections forecast half as much rainfall in summer (nothing like fully offset by 30% more rainfall in winter) in the South East. We need to plan ahead and each of us needs to play our part.

We have, of course, not only to cope with too little water. Indeed the last year has been characterised more by too much water with serious flooding in many parts of the country. Sir Michael Pitt’s report into these floods shows that we still have lessons to learn as a country about defending ourselves from, and learning to live with, floods. One particular issue is how we cope with ‘surface water’ flooding. Just as climate change seems likely to mean less water on average, it is also likely to mean more extreme weather events, with more inland and coastal flooding.

Finally, the way we pump, treat, clean and heat water has profound implications for energy use. The water industry is a major energy user, and together with domestic hot water use, there’s a carbon impact here that simply has to be tackled. Saving water reduces emissions.

This water strategy for England sets out the Government’s plans for water in the future and the practical steps that we will take to ensure that good clean water is available for people, businesses and nature. It looks ahead to 2030 and describes the water supply system we want to see then and how to get there. It looks at the water cycle as a whole, from rainfall and drainage through to discharge and treatment. And because almost everything we do affects water in some way – from what we put down the drain and treat in our sewage works, to how we design our houses or farm the land – it looks at every aspect of water use.

The practical steps we will need to take will include: improving the supply of water; agreeing on important new infrastructure such as reservoirs; proposals to time limit abstraction licences; and steps we are taking to reduce leakage. We will tackle direct pollution to rivers, and reduce discharges from sewers.

And we intend to reduce demand, through better building design, more efficient appliances and improving industrial processes, and ensuring that as we move increasingly towards water metering in areas where supplies are under pressure this is done in the fairest and most effective way, so saving water and reducing bills.

Our floods plan ‘Making Space for Water’ has already set out the steps we are taking to tackle flooding, including record spending on flood defence. But this summer’s events dramatically highlighted the problem of ‘surface water’ flooding, made worse by the increasing amounts of concrete and paving in our towns and cities. Too much of this water is left to the sewerage and drainage networks to cope with. So this strategy sets out a new approach to managing surface water, with better co-ordination and planning and promoting sustainable drainage above ground.

We are all increasingly understanding that we need to value water more, use it more wisely and play our part in taking responsibility for protecting this essential and unique resource. This strategy aims to help all of us to do so.

Water is essential for life. It is vital for our health and wellbeing, and for agriculture, fisheries, industry and transportation. Healthy water resources are necessary for a high-quality natural environment. Water provides us with countless benefits as we swim in it, sail on it, water our gardens and take pleasure in the plants and animals which depend on it. Healthy water environments, such as wetlands and floodplains, also provide natural water storage and flood protection.

2. The drought in South East England in 2004-06, and the floods of 2007 have brought into focus the pressures we know climate change will bring. Future Water, our new water strategy for England, is our response.

3. Future Water sets out how we want the water sector to look by 2030, and some of the steps we will need to take to get there. It is a vision where rivers, canals, lakes and seas have improved for people and wildlife, with benefits for angling, boating and other recreational activities, and where we continue to provide excellent quality drinking water. It is a vision of a sector that values and protects its water resources; that delivers water to customers through fair, affordable and cost-reflective charges; where flood risk is addressed with markedly greater understanding and use of good surface water management; and where the water industry has cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The vision shows a sector that is resilient to climate change, with its likelihood of more frequent droughts as well as floods, and to population growth, with forward planning fully in tune with these adaptation challenges.

4. In short, our vision is for sustainable delivery of secure water supplies and an improved and protected water environment.

Water demand

5. A recurring theme of this strategy is the need for us all to value water and not inadvertently waste it. Wasting water means wasting a resource on which we are dependent and which is limited in its seasonal and regional availability. It means wasting the energy required to supply, treat and distribute the water to where it is used, and to remove and treat wastewater. And wasting hot water in our homes also wastes a lot of energy and money.

6. Good forecasting of demand will be essential. For example, we will need to take account of likely changes in lifestyle, household formation, population and temperatures from region to region. We must continue to manage demand, especially through increased water efficiency and reduced water wastage. Water can be saved in our homes and communities, in industry and agriculture, and by the water industry itself.

7. Minimum water efficiency standards for all new homes are now in prospect through changes to the Building Regulations. In addition, the Code for Sustainable Homes, a voluntary standard for new homes introduced last year, will be applied to new government-funded social housing. Better product labelling is becoming available, and we will be exploring how to work with whole supply chains to encourage the purchase of more water efficient products. Better informed customers make better choices, and we know that the increased use of metering is a further spur to reducing water demand without compromising our quality of life.

8. The Water Saving Group will continue its work to reduce per capita consumption, and in the year ahead will also review the measures in place to promote water efficiency in industry and commerce. Stronger and more consistent water saving messages from Government and other stakeholders are also needed to raise awareness and encourage behaviour change. For its part, the water industry must demonstrate its commitment to demand management by meeting its leakage reduction and water efficiency targets.

Water supply

9. Demand management measures alone will not secure water supplies. We need to continue with a twin track approach. New or enhanced supply may be inevitable in some areas to complement demand management measures and deliver the necessary long term resilience. The National Policy Statement for water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure, as envisaged in the Planning Bill, will contribute to speeding up the process of reservoir development, where this is an appropriate option. In addition, we will be consulting on proposals to time limit all abstraction licences as a way to allow better management of our water resources and to allow for regular reassessment of the pressures on our rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.

10. Central to the long term forward planning for water supply are the statutory 25-year water resources management plans that water companies are required to produce and which help inform the 5-yearly reviews of water price limits carried out by Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water industry. In these plans, water companies must examine their supply options strategically and innovatively and take into account the best available information about changes in climate, population and water demand. We believe these plans will become a vital tool in climate change adaptation efforts.

11. We will also encourage the increased use of rainwater harvesting where appropriate, as a means of managing local water demand and reducing reliance on the public water supply. Property developers and owners as well as land managers can make a positive difference here.

12. Planning authorities will need to work particularly closely with the water companies and the Environment Agency on timing and numbers of new households in those areas likely to see the greatest growth. The recent report into the feasibility of water neutrality i.e. where total water used after new development is no more than that used before the development, in the Thames Gateway area, for example, provides a compelling vision which must now be explored further.