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Sowing the seeds of change

Sowing the seeds of change

Author: Sam White, natural resources managing director and Gavin Stonard, water business development director 

Costain’s Sam White and Gavin Stonard, reflect on discussions from the recent Social Contract summit and in particular the role behaviours and culture can have on the long term resilience and security of our water supply.   

To make progress we need silos and boundaries to be broken down, collaboration to be at the forefront and innovative solutions developed to prevent challenges simply being passed on to the next catchment area. 

The public perception 

Over the past couple of years there has been a growing awareness amongst the public of the poor condition of many UK rivers. According to DEFRA1, only 14% of UK rivers are currently classed as being in good ecological health. In a report by the West Country Rivers Trust2, half of the failing rivers are impacted by water company activities, with two thirds impacted by agriculture and a quarter by the urban and transport sector.  

The impact on rivers of wastewater overflows from sewers and wastewater treatment works and abstraction from rivers and boreholes for drinking water have been well documented in traditional and social media.  When combined with the ongoing issue of leakage and stories about the level of company profits and chief executive pay, a political environment has been created where the water companies are being held directly responsible for the poor health of our rivers and are expected to invest significant amounts of money to fix the problems.   

However, whilst the activities of the water industry undeniably have an impact, water companies can’t solve the problems on their own.  Yes, they have a responsibility to ensure they minimise the number of overflows from sewers and abstractions from rivers, but other actors in the system - agriculture, industry, developers, local authorities, and even customers themselves - also have a part to play. 

Times are changing 

In previous years, water companies would investigate the options, select a solution, price it and apply to Ofwat through the periodic review process for the money to remedy the issue.  However, times have changed.  The rise of citizen science and social media, combined with the cost-of-living crisis, means that whilst customers would like to see improvements in river quality, they are often increasingly unwilling to pay for it through their bills and instead are expecting the companies to fund it through their profits.  However, there are other factors at play which we need to be aware of. 

Customer behaviour towards water usage 

Water scarcity, which was highlighted during the summer drought last year (which is still continuing for many regions), is another issue that the companies can’t solve on their own.  The UK has the 10th highest water consumption rates in Europe3, consuming on average 150 litres per person per day, which the water companies are focussed on bringing down by 20%.  Recent research has shown that most customers have no idea how much water they use in their homes.  This highlights the need to help people understand the value of water and change their behaviours.   

Leakage is another issue that tends to get attention.  Companies have reduced leakage from their networks by around 30% since privatisation and has committed to a further 15% reduction in the current AMP.  It is accepted that more needs to be done to minimise losses from the system and, through Water UK, the industry has set a target to reduce leakage by half by 20504.   

And yet domestic consumption and leakage is a small part of the story, with the majority of UK water consumption attributed to industry and agriculture. 

These are just two of the challenges.  Others include the impacts of climate change on the resilience of our national infrastructure assets (and customers’ properties), skill shortages in STEM disciplines and the future proofing of our water and wastewater assets.  

How can we move forward? 

There must be a recognition that water companies cannot be expected to solve the big challenges on their own.  If we want to enjoy cleaner rivers and be able to use bathing waters on the days after a storm, then there must be an acceptance that we will all have to invest in that; that includes businesses, their customers, central and local government and other end users. 

This collaboration is possible and is happening in some areas.  Good work is being done in preparing for the future water scarcity challenge, not least by the relatively new Regional Water Resources groups (for example Water Resources South East that fellow panellist Trevor Bishop represents) who have made great strides in pulling together all of the various stakeholders who can influence the use of water to tackle the forecast water deficit and develop joined up plans to meet the challenges.  The way these regional groups have been set up, organised and managed can provide a blueprint for how everyone can work together to improve the health of our rivers and to ensure that the huge investment required to meet the challenge is targeted in the right areas and spent effectively and efficiently to achieve the outcomes everyone wants.  

A UK enterprise approach 

It is clear that no one stakeholder can fix these big problems on their own.  It will need a joined up, system level approach to deliver the outcomes that we all want - improved river health and the increased amenity value and the spin-off benefits for nature that comes with it.  The work that the regional water resources groups have been doing has demonstrated that a collaborative, system level approach that brings together all the stakeholders is possible, especially when the problem - a reliable water supply to meet the future challenges of population growth and the impact of climate change – is big enough. 

Trust and confidence are key to building this collaborative approach.  In the eyes of the public and the government, the water companies are the current owners of these problems and are duty bound to fix them.   

Collaboration does exist in the water industry.  The Strategic Resource Options (SRO) currently being promoted by Ofwat’s RAPID team is a great example of the sector coming together and looking at cross-water company boundaries to solve the water scarcity challenge that England faces in the not too distant future.   

Several companies, including Wessex Water, are working with local farmers to better manage the nutrients they apply to their land, reducing the nutrient load that arrives at the treatment works, which in turn reduces the amount of chemicals and energy (and carbon) required for treatment.   

Sowing the first seeds 

The water sector faces an unprecedented challenge to solve the significant environmental and water security issues that must be faced, to allow people and the planet to thrive. Alternative delivery and financing models are being developed, but these will require the sector to come together and work differently, harnessing the power of collaboration and a systems approach. 

Costain is working with British Water on a Spotlight Series for 2023 which works through the big challenges and tackles them head with action orientated discussions. More information will be available soon on the British Water website.