Water efficiency crucial to UK's future

8th December 2011

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Organisations must cut the amount of water they use if the UK economy is to cope with greater pressure on its supplies in future, warns Defra.

In its long-awaited white paper, Water for Life, the government confirms that ecosystems in England and Wales are already being harmed by unsustainable levels of water use and, with greater pressure on supplies anticipated due to an increasing population and the impacts of climate change, it is vital that water is used more efficiently in homes and businesses.

“Making sure we’ve got enough water for everyone is going to be one of the major challenges this country will have to deal with in the years ahead,” said environment secretary Caroline Spelman in launching the paper. “With water expected to be less predictable as time goes on we all have to play our part in ensuring our water supply remains secure.”

The paper outlines the government’s proposed approach to protecting the natural environment, while ensuring sustainable and affordable water supplies. It places particular emphasis on the local “catchment” area approach to tackling pollution and argues in favour of incentivising water efficiency for businesses and homeowners.

Key proposals include providing access to finance through the Green Deal for the upgrade to more efficient heated water systems, for example, and the introduction of variable tariffs, which should encourage a reduction in demand at peak times.

The paper also proposes reforming the water sector to allow business customers in England and Wales to choose their water supplier, following similar changes introduced in Scotland in 2008. According to the government increased competition will provide an incentive for water companies to work with customers to help reduce water consumption and cut wastage.

Defra’s proposals were welcomed by Mark Powles, chief executive of Scottish water supplier Business Stream, who said his firm had helped customers cut their bills by £20 million by reducing water use.

“That would not have happened without competition, and certainly not within a few years,” he said. “This is a good time for businesses as the white paper puts customers at the heart of the water sector, giving them more power to influence the price they pay and to control the type of service they need for their business.”

Following on from the natural environment white paper published in June, the new paper confirms the government’s continued support into investigating water footprinting techniques, and also discusses the important potential role of clearer labelling to help consumers buy the most water-efficient products.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) described the document as broadly positive, but criticised the government for not being more explicit in its support for a wider roll out of water meters.

“To value water properly … we need to measure water use accurately and then use tariffs that discourage profligacy. This white paper does too little to encourage wider metering which is a crucial part of this balance,” said Nick Reeves, CIWEM executive director.

Rose Timlett, freshwater policy officer at WWF-UK, agreed: “It's great to see that the government is taking a fresh and innovative approach to protecting our rivers and wildlife, [but] one key area that still needs to be addressed is how to support the comprehensive roll-out of water meters. Combined with social tariffs and water efficiency measures this is the cheapest and fairest way for people to reduce their water usage.”

Meanwhile, Carrie Hume, head of conservation policy at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, argued that the paper did not go far enough in its plans to protect wetlands.

“Wetlands drainage systems soak up floodwater in towns and cities are easy to create, often inexpensive and highly effective. But standards for their installation have still not been published while the concept of retrofitting around existing urban areas is all but ignored,” she said.

“Unless we harness the power of nature to help prevent flooding we are in for a seriously tough time with major flooding events like those of 2007 in Gloucestershire, which cost £3.4 billion, readily happening again.”

Alongside the white paper the Environment Agency published two support papers outlining its research into water availability in the UK and the case for reforming the sourcing of water in England.

A draft Water Bill, following the proposals in the white paper, will be published early next year.

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