The UK could face severe water shortages in just 25 years

The UK could lose its reputation as a wet country, as climate change and population growth could lead to water shortages within 25 years. Drastic changes to consumption patterns and supply systems are needed.

In only 25 years the UK could be running short of water warns Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the British Environment Agency. A decline in water supply induced by climate change and an increase in both population and demand for the resource may lead to shortages, unless drastic efficiency goals are met. Despite these negative predictions, hope is still on the horizon. Reducing consumption by a third and water pipe leaks by half, building desalination plants and new reservoirs, as well as increasing transfers between the countries of the UK may mitigate this dire scenario.

Climate change in the UK

By 2040 the temperatures of over half of England’s summers will exceed those of the record 2003 heat wave that killed 20,000 people in Europe, resulting in more water shortages as well as possible seasonal reductions in the levels of some rivers up to 50-80 per cent. This is what Bevan reported during his speech at a conference of the NGO Waterwise held in London on 18-19 March. Climate change is in fact recognised by water companies as the principal risk factor for their operations.

Dry reservoir in the UK
A dried up reservoir in Bolton, UK following a 2018 drought © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Increases in water demand

Currently, the amount of water used per person in the country is around 140-150 litres a day, therefore approximately 9.4 billion litres are consumed nationwide. Aggravating the already alarming issue is the predicted increase in population from the current 66,850,000 residents to 75,000,000 by 2050. An estimated addition of over 8 million people would undoubtedly raise the overall demand for water. Assuming that average water consumption remains stable, that would mean a daily use of 10.6 billion litres in the UK, an increase of 1.2 billion litres of water every day. To mitigate the impact of this growth, usage should be cut by at least 40 litres a day per capita, for example by consuming this resource more conscientiously in homes and gardens, the latter much-loved and cared for by many British residents.

Thames Water's Beckton Plant
Thames Water’s Beckton plant, the only major desalination plant that currently exists in the UK © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

What water companies can do

Beyond the changes citizens can take part in, water companies are also responsible for improving the overall system. By 2020 pipe leakages should be reduced by 15 per cent for water companies to comply with rules set by Ofwat, the sector’s economic regulator in England and Wales. Whilst some businesses have been given large fines for failing to reach these types of targets in the past, others have publicly declared their goal of cutting leaks by half by 2050, says Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of Water UK, which works with government, companies and stakeholders to develop policy on this issue.

The disparity in the distribution of water must also be addressed through transfers within the UK, as at the moment only 4 per cent of supplies are reallocated between companies via pipelines and canals. Luckily for areas such as the south-east, 20 new transfer projects are in the works. Additionally, new desalination plants are necessary if the UK is to meet growing demand for water. Whilst only one major desalination facility currently exists, Thames Water’s Beckton plant in London, four more could become operational by 2050.

The main obstacle to change, however, is the construction of new mega-reservoirs, “largely because clearing all the planning and legal hurdles necessary is so difficult and local opposition so fierce,” says Bevan. There are plans to streamline the planning process, although this will cause controversy.

The costs of change and environmental difficulties

“While there will be political challenges, there should be less difficulty over the economics,” Bevan reports. He explains that investment costs would be much smaller compared to the cost of not increasing water stability. It would cost an estimated 4 pounds (5.25 dollars) per household to enact the needed investments, as opposed to 100 pounds (over 130 dollars) in case of severe drought.

Not to be forgotten is the importance of protecting natural habitats from excessive water abstraction, the process of extracting it from natural sources. “Government proposals … are necessary if we are to balance the needs of people and the natural environment,” says Tom Lancaster of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Water waste means water shortage
A campaign against water waste © Wikimedia Commons

What we can do to save water

It seems clear that there’s an intricate network of problems that need to be addressed urgently if the UK is to maintain its reputation as a “wet” country. However, everyone can join in the effort to create positive change, starting with everyday actions at home. Here’s a list of things we can all do to save water, ranging from installing water efficient shower-heads, avoiding sprinklers in the garden and even simply switching off the tap while brushing your teeth, a piece of age-old advice for anyone seeking to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

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