Water Industry News

Will The UK’s Ageing Infrastructure Drive Future Water Shortages?

Although the water crisis is a global issue and one that will affect every country around the world in some way or another, what’s important to recognise is that each nation will face its own unique set of water-related scenarios, so there’s no one size fits all approach that can be adopted to to address the issues of water stress and scarcity.


Where the UK is concerned, it’s expected that climate change will bring with it more extreme weather events like drought periods and intense and heavy rainfall, which in turn will lead to more frequent flooding events.


This in itself is bad enough, since drought and flooding will both put additional pressure on the nation’s waterways, affecting both the amount of water and the quality of what little there is left.


However, even more pressure is expected to be put on the UK’s freshwater supplies because of the country’s ageing infrastructure, much of which has been around since the 19th century, coupled with population growth which will put increasing stress and strain on the pipe network.


A Water UK white paper published last year explained that increasing pressure will be put on both our infrastructure and the supply and demand balance by population growth, which is forecast to climb from 67 million in 2020 to between 75 and 79 million come 2050.


It’s predicted that growth is expected to be highest in the south-east of England) which will see projected growth of between 19 and 25 per cent), although every region in the country will be affected. Additionally, the average household size is on the wane, which means that there will be more connections to the network overall.


For water resources, this poses a range of different challenges. For example, increased demand will mean even more pressure is put on supplies, as well as asset health and the environment (which is already being affected by climate change), through increased use of detergents in line with a larger population that will see even more phosphorus entering waterways.


Growing numbers of people will also prove problematic for our ageing legacy assets, which were designed to meet the needs of previous generations and are no longer sufficient to meet the wider needs and expectations of current/future generations, nor a changing planet.


The report went on to note that the current approach to upgrading the water network over the last 30 years fails to meet these future challenges head on, particularly in the context of changing water demand patterns, the need to improve local ecosystem health, increased customer expectations and the urgent need to deal with climate change right now.


Figures show that just 0.2 per cent of sewers and 0.6 per cent of water mains are replaced each year and, working at this rate, it would take 500 years to renew the sewer network and 167 years to upgrade the water mains.


The conclusion was drawn that unless these renewal rates increase, services will have deteriorated significantly by 2050, with water main bursts rising by 20 per cent, water supply interruptions climbing by 25 per cent and sewer flooding/pollution up by six per cent.


What can be done?


Writing for City AM, Daniel Freiman – partner in the planning and infrastructure consenting team at Eversheds Sutherland – observed that if the UK is to become a water-resilient country, new infrastructure is an absolute necessity. However, building this infrastructure is proving to be trickier than it should be because of a complicated planning system.


All water supply infrastructure projects will require planning consent and some of these will be nationally significant, which means that they’ll need development consent under specific consenting conditions… making the process even more complex.


“As we’ve seen with other infrastructure projects, getting planning consent in the UK is no easy feat. And the consenting system, even for nationally significant schemes, is under pressure. The time taken to secure consent is increasing, as are legal challenges. There are various factors at play – resourcing constraints, more complex and lengthy applications, and increasingly active and sophisticated objector organisations.


“In the last year or so, decisions on several energy and transport projects were delayed beyond statutory timescales, while the courts have been busy dealing with legal challenges to wind farms, roads and airport projects,” Mr Freiman explained.


He went on to note that one of the most important areas to focus on for reform is to ensure that national policy statements are reviewed and updated more regularly so as to deliver strategic direction and a steady policy basis for granting consent.


The expert also called on policymakers to ensure that their commitments to planning policy and infrastructure are taken seriously so that more sustainable solutions can be developed for the future.


This will include making investments in more modern infrastructure, as well as improving water efficiency and encouraging behavioural change across the board.


“Failure to act swiftly will not only prolong the severe consequences of a warmer climate which we experienced last summer, but also impact the future of the UK’s water security and the environment. With another record-breaking hot summer forecast for the UK this year, it looks like the scrutiny of the water industry is set to stay,” Mr Freiman concluded.


Last month (April), the National Drought Group (NDG) called on water companies and individuals alike to concentrate on preserving water now to get ahead of potential dry spells in the future, after the last few months saw contrasting bouts of weather hit the country.


The NDG is now preparing for the worst case scenario of similarly dry and hot conditions this summer as was seen last year, managing water resources effectively to help reduce the risk of drought measures.


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