Future Water 2013

Members of the UK water sector met at the end of June at the Royal Geographical Society in London for a one day national water policy conference, “Future Water 2013”, which aimed to address a number of water related policy issues surrounding building a more resilient water sector for the future.

The morning session started with a panel debate chaired by John Vidal (Environment Editor, The Guardian) and panel members Anne McIntosh MP (Chair of HoC EFRA Select Committee), Ian Barker (Head of Water, Land and Biodiversity, Environment Agency), Tony Smith (Chief Executive, Consumer Council for Water) and Alan Sutherland (Chief Executive, Water Commission for Scotland). The discussion aimed to explore how the water sector can remain resilient financially, technologically and environmentally in the future and how customers can benefit from new reforms.

Ian Barker highlighted the range of problems which the water sector faces in relation to the water supply and the environment. 2012 saw the UK face ~90 days in drought conditions, followed later by 72 days in flood.  The country experienced 11 major flood events and 200,000 properties were protected due to flood protection schemes across the country. This highlights the need for us to efficiently manage our surface water, whether there is too little or too much. One of the key questions is whether we are able to use past observations to predict the future? and therefore inform necessary reforms in the water industry, where we already have a legacy of 200 years of abuse of our water. The UK needs to be better prepared for shock events such as floods or droughts so that if we can’t predict them we can deal with them when they do occur. Ian Barker stated that a clear policy direction was needed to help the water industry to plan and these policy decisions need to be reinforced at government level through our regulatory bodies.

The other major issue raised in the debate was customer dissatisfaction with the water industry, prices continue to rise yet customers struggle to see what benefit they are getting from the extra money they have to pay out. Prices for South-West water customers have become unsustainably high, so much so that central government has had to step in to help customers who can’t afford their basic bills. Tony Smith highlighted that regulation should be more consumer focused so that water companies do not focus purely satisfying the regulator and not considering their customers. A similar problem was highlighted regarding bathing water, south-west England has the highest proportion of low-income households in England, yet has the longest length of coastline to keep clean. This cost is passed onto consumers who are already struggling to keep up with escalating costs.

Following this discussion, Sonia Phippard (DEFRA) introduced the new Water Bill which is currently going through Parliament. While all the details are yet to be agreed the Water Bill will tackle issues of resilience to future change, growth and investment in our water infrastructure and will introduce competition for business customers – meaning if they don’t like the service from their current supplier then they could opt for gaining their services from another company in a similar way to the energy sector. The bill will also outline market reforms which will aim to create retail and upstream competition as a driver for efficiency and quality of service provided by water companies, these reforms will be rolled out by 2017. Sonia Phippard suggested that it was important to encourage innovation in the sector and this could be achieved by encouraging new players into the water sector. For example, it could become possible for smaller water owners to sell excess water into the system. There will also be a formal review of the responsibility for water leaks to remove the many grey areas which currently exist; this will be added later as an amendment to the Water Bill. It was also highlighted that reforms relating to abstraction from rivers will not be included in the current bill, but will be covered by future reforms centring around sustainability which will probably be announced next year. Also water quality will be dealt with by the next round of EA River Basin Management Plans and so will not be specifically be covered by the Water Bill.

The current version of the Water Bill which is currently being introduced into parliament is available at: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/water.html

The morning session also saw John Penrose MP introduce his ‘radical’ paper “We deserve better” which discusses the current dissatisfaction amongst consumers with utilities and proposes to introduce reforms which would allow consumers to vote with their feet and switch supplier if they were not satisfied. It would also give customers the opportunity to buy from a company which provide ‘green’ water, similar to the system currently operating in the energy sector. For an executive summary and the full paper see: http://www.johnpenrose.org/images/wedeservebetter.pdf

The afternoon session began with interactive workshop sessions, I attended the session on “The impact of extreme events on freshwater ecosystems”. This session aimed to discuss what is resilience in freshwater? Where do we need it and do we currently have the right tools, including science, policy and practise tools. The discussion highlighted that restoring sections of rivers which were previously engineered can help ecosystems to recover and make them therefore more resilient if extreme hydrological or pollution events were to occur. High flow events are of particular ecological concern as in many areas these events can cause the combined sewage systems to interact with the river through overflow events, which will impact on the ecological health of the river. Managing water quality and maintaining god ecological health is managed through River Basin Management plans, the second round of which is currently being produced. As a pre-cursor to the RBMP’s the EA have produced a Challenges and Choices document, more details can be found at: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/planning/33252.aspx

The afternoon session continued with a keynote address from Dr Vicky Pope (Head of Integration and Growth, Met Office) who outlined some of the environmental challenges and how the Met Office is working to tackle some of the current issues. Under the banner of climate change, northern Europe as already seen an increase in extreme rainfall. However, one of the biggest challenges is that we do not currently understand how north Atlantic weather patterns (El Nino, Atlantic multidecadal oscillation) will change under climate change and therefore how these will impact of UK weather. This remains one of the main scientific research questions. From a water sector perspective it is the climate variability rather than long-term change which is important and therefore the Met Office is working along with other project partners to provide better seasonal forecasts and predictions of climate variability as well as to provide better information regarding storms, drought and storm surges. The Met Office is starting to use their weather models in ‘climate change mode’ in order to begin to get improved local detail which is important for water management. This type of research has not been possible until recently due to lack of computational power, and even now this can only be one for small areas rather the whole country.

The day was rounded up with a discussion based around innovation and the need for improved water infrastructure if a more resilient sector is to be achieved. For example, currently the UK system relies on members of the public to report leakages rather than having monitoring systems in place which can detect failures and quickly alert the water company to the problem. It was quoted that all UK water companies combined only spent £18 million last year on research and development, despite huge profits. Currently there is no incentive for water companies to invest in research and development providing that they satisfy the regulator – market reforms may help in this respect. That said, some water companies are now beginning to invest in their local environment as it is becoming more cost-effective to reduce pollution at its source before it reaches the river rather than having to clean up the water after abstraction etc. This type of new thinking provides benefits for both the water industry and the environment, and any cost savings could hopefully therefore be passed down to the consumer.

The Future Water conference was a day packed with information and discussion which covered a whole range of issues facing the water sector, from financial to environmental pressures. It became clear very quickly that a co-ordinated effort is necessary if we are to create a water sector which can be resilient to climate change and the increased demands we are putting on our water and at the same time provide a service which is affordable and sustainable across the whole country. The challenge has most definitely been set……

This blog has been written by Dr Charlotte Lloyd, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

Dr Charlotte Lloyd