Legislation: Future water - The govenment`s water strategy for England

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Visions, Strategies & Realisation

Compared to other environmental areas such as land use, waste management, air quality and biodiversity, comprehensive strategic planning of water management in England has been dilatory. This is not to say that strategic planning has been entirely absent in water management, but that it has been undertaken in a piecemeal way, with numerous sectoral initiatives dealing with water services, flood defence and environmental and ecological water quality. Until now there has been no overarching statement of their interrelationship.

Future Water1 brings together the various sectoral initiatives in providing an overall national strategy for water management extending forward to 2030. The Strategy sets out the Government s vision for sustainable delivery of secure water supplies and an improved and protected water environment, and indicates the steps that are needed to achieve this. In short, the vision for water policy and management is one where, by 2030 at the latest, there will be:

  • improved quality of the water environment and the ecology which it supports, and continued provision of high levels of drinking water quality;
  • sustainably managed risks from flooding and coastal erosion, with greater under-standing and more effective management of surface water;
  • a sustainable use of water resources implemented by fair, affordable and cost-reflective water charges;
  • cuts in greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • continuous adaptation to climate change and other pressures embedded across the water industry and water users.

Even with the elaboration provided in the Strategy, the critical questions are whether these objectives are sufficiently precise to be meaningful and whether the operational measures that are envisaged for their realisation will be adequate to ensure their achievement within the stated timescale.

The Strategy is a product of its time. Over recent years dramatic events have filled centre stage as water management concerns. The serious drought in South-east England in 2004-06 and the summer floods of 2007 have been strongly influential in the formulation of the Strategy. These are set against a backdrop of dire predictions of more of the same in future years as a result of climate change. Hence, there is fairly extensive coverage of the areas of greatest contemporary concern: flooding and the provision of reliable water services at reasonable prices. By comparison, the need to protect natural water quality and the aquatic environment is relatively thinly covered, and genuinely futuristic thinking about new kinds of pressure upon water management in 2030 is sparse. Rightly or wrongly, topical anthropocentric concerns about water management occupy the main bulk of the Strategy.

WATER DEMAND

A key theme of the Strategy is the need to reduce water wastage along with wastage of the energy needed to supply treat and distribute it, and, domestically, the energy used in heating it. According to the Strategy, average water use in England is presently 150 litres per person per day, somewhere near the middle of the range by EU comparisons, but substantially more than in many other countries. Nonetheless, the point is well made that one third of the water we use, after having been treated to the highest drinking water standards, is actually used to flush toilets. The vision for 2030 is that per capita water use will be reduced to 130 litres per person per day, or even lower depending upon techno¬logical developments.

In part, the mechanisms for achieving this reduction are voluntary, with encouragement being given to changing household behaviour by the endorsement of various practical tips for domestic water saving, previously put forward by the Water Saving Group. In part, the mechanisms may also have a harder legal edge under proposals for the amendment of the Building Regulations, to include a requirement for minimum standards of water efficiency in new homes, and a review of the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations, in respect of setting higher performance standards for the maximum water use for toilets and water appliances.

Although educating consumers on the benefits of economical use of water serves a useful purpose, it is made more challenging when massive amounts of water are being lost in leakage from inadequately maintained supply pipes. Despite improvements, leakage still stands at about 25 per cent, though about a quarter of this is lost from customers' pipes. Whilst totally eliminating leakage would be fantastically expensive, if not technically impossible, losses of water, and the energy used in treating and distributing it, must be reduced to an optimum level. On this, the majority of water companies have now reached their 'economic level of leakage': the level at which the cost of reducing further leakage exceeds the cost of producing water from another source. However, it is arguable whether this methodology adequately reflects the social and environmental costs of further reduction. In response to this concern, the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is in the process of reviewing whether improvements could be made to the guidance on the appropriate approach to reducing leakage.

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