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UK water shortages

The UK’s water supply was ‘on the brink of collapse’ during 2022 heatwave
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A dripping tap

Documents obtained and made public by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative unit, show how water companies from Cornwall to Yorkshire were shockingly unprepared for last summer’s heatwave, creating an imminent risk to mains supply in many areas.

Internal briefings produced by the Environment Agency for their CEO and for Defra reveal their concern over an alarming list of failures and potential regulatory breaches.

Water supply vs environmental law

Water levels in some reservoirs reached record lows and were close to ‘dead storage’, where there is so little water it may not be treatable. Nearly half of England’s reservoirs had levels classed as ‘exceptionally low’.

The Environment Agency was facing choices between approving permits needed to maintain water supply and upholding environmental law. They warned that some companies might end up abstracting water illegally.

The EA raised concerns to Defra about ‘potential immediate supply risks’ in Yorkshire and the south-west. 

Action taken by Yorkshire Water to fly in an emergency water pipe to transfer water across a protected area could have been in breach of the conditions of its licence, the EA warned.

The EA granted South West Water a drought permit to abstract water from the Lower Tamar lake, a nature reserve on the border of Devon and Cornwall.

The EA warned that, without the permit, the reservoir linked to the reserve would have emptied and ‘become unusable’, and SWW might have had to start using tanker trucks and bottled water to maintain supplies to customers.

Southern Water requested a permit to abstract water above the legal limit from a chalk stream, one of the rarest habitats on the planet.

The EA could not approve it under the Habitats Directive because SW had not accounted for the impact on salmon. The EA was concerned that Southern Water ‘may illegally abstract to maintain customer supplies’, a situation that could pose ‘serious environmental risks’.

Unrealistic climate forecasts

This new information comes from an Environment Agency briefing to Defra’s deputy director of water services, entitled ‘Water company risks for autumn/winter’, from 14 September 2022, and another to James Bevan, then CEO of the Environment Agency, about a drought permit application by Southern Water on July 19.

‘With leaky infrastructure wasting up to a trillion litres of water a year and no new reservoirs built for decades, climate change could bring severe water shortages to the UK – and once again this government is playing fast and loose with the future of the country.

‘When this government advised water companies to use unrealistically optimistic climate forecasts for their drought planning, they had all of this alarming information and knew exactly how close we are to water shortages already.

‘The dangerous gamble they’re taking is not that droughts too big for us to handle won’t happen, but that they’ll happen after the next election.’

Political campaigner for Greenpeace UK

In 2019 the Environment Agency estimated that climate change would cause England to run short of water by 2045.

This year the Climate Change Committee warned that water companies have made limited progress in reducing leakage, are failing to keep up with targets to reduce demand, and noted that there have been no new reservoirs built in the UK in 30 years.

Despite this, two weeks ago it was revealed in the Times that the government has advised water companies to scale back their drought preparedness plans by ‘assuming unrealistically low levels of climate change,’ to compensate for the required increase in spending on sewage infrastructure. 

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