Firms urged to save water as droughts spread

9th March 2012


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Environment secretary Caroline Spelman has called on businesses and consumers to cut water use after the Environment Agency (EA) confirmed that the southeast of England and East Anglia are in drought

At a Defra-hosted emergency summit on the water shortages, utilities companies operating in the affected areas agreed to ramp up efforts to reduce leakage from infrastructure, to work with customers to encourage more responsible use of water and to implement drought plans.

However, with parts of central England, southwest England and the southeast of Yorkshire continuing to be affected by dry weather, the EA is warning that the risk of widespread droughts in the spring and summer months is high.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) described the droughts as a wake-up call for urgent action to be taken to improve water efficiency and increase adoption of water metering and water-saving devices.

“Most people fundamentally underestimate how much water they use,” Alastair Chisholm, CIWEM policy manager told the environmentalist. “They turn on the tap and just don’t think about it, which is why metering is important. Widespread water metering will help people to better understand the value of water and how much they actually use.”

In December 2011, the Carbon Disclosure Project’s second annual water report revealed that businesses’ approach to water use lagged far behind that of managing carbon emissions, with only 57% of the 190 FTSE 500 companies surveyed ensuring board-level responsibility for water management.

Joe Flanagan, sustainability expert at consultancy firm Ceram, which has published a paper outlining the business benefits of water footprinting (lexisurl.com/iema11902), argues that a lack of perception of costs is partly to blame. “For those organisations where water isn’t seen as a vital raw material, water costs are less than those associated with energy, which is part of the reason why it’s not further up many businesses’ agendas,” he said.

However, with increasing risk of water shortages and restrictions being placed on supply, more UK organisations are taking a proactive approach. “Our clients, particularly those in the southeast of England, are concerned that if there is rationing in future the domestic sector is going to get priority,” confirmed Flanagan.

“They want to understand the nature of the risk that they are exposed to, and water footprinting offers a starting point to understand how much water is being used and where it is being used.”

In its recently published white paper on water, the government reaffirmed its support for the development of water-footprinting techniques, while outlining other potential measures to encourage greater water efficiency, including allowing business customers in England and Wales to choose their water supplier, as is the case in Scotland, and potentially creating a water cap and trade scheme.

Ben Piper, senior architect at consultancy Atkins, said the droughts could provide the catalyst the water industry needs to build on the government’s proposals. “The ongoing and worsening drought conditions may well trigger more emphasis on the scope and speed of reforms, which could include more incentives for water trading, metering, and other demand-management measures.”

In research accompanying the government’s white paper on water, the EA estimated that, by 2050, droughts would be commonplace in the UK if action is not taken to reform the country’s system of water supply.

The government is due to publish a draft water Bill, following the proposals in its white paper, in the coming months.

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