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Water is the next target for the ‘three Rs’ mantra

Lord Redesdale

Much of the country is going through an extended period without water. The fabulous Easter weather that so cheered everyone’s spirits could in fact be a worrying indicator of changing rainfall patterns. The UK has always relied on cheap, plentiful water. But with a population that is expected to grow to 70 million by 2029 and the consequent increase in water demand, there is a real risk that water will soon need to be rationed.

It is almost certain that industry will soon face a sharp increase in the cost of its water. Like energy, water has been used profligately in the past. But there is a growing awareness among consumers that sustainability of water usage needs to be addressed.

Water is one of the main recycled products available in Britain. If you live towards the East End of London, near the banks of the Thames, it has been estimated that the water you drink, since it fell as rainwater in the river’s upper catchment area, will already have been consumed by seven people. So, given that it is so heavily recycled, why is the cost of water still increasing?

“The driver will change as water has the issue of sustainability imposed upon it”

The problem is the ‘hidden’ carbon cost of water. Each cubic metre of water requires 1kWh of energy to supply it and another 1kWh of energy to clean it up. The development of a Water Efficiency Certificate, soon to be announced for the domestic and commercial sectors, demonstrates that water wastage needs to be assessed - not just on the monetary costs, but also the ethical considerations that could come into play in times of drought.

It is possible that, soon, companies which fail to make sure their premises are as water efficient as possible could be named and shamed. Before this situation is reached, however, we have the opportunity to educate businesses on how to cut consumption and recycle water. Many water-saving technologies have, in the past, been seen as expensive luxuries. But it will not be long before cost-benefit analyses swing in favour of water efficiency.

This summer the Government will publish its white paper for the water industry. Since the formation of water and sewage regulator Ofwat, the water industry has always been regulated as a utility, driven almost purely by economic regulations. It is likely that with the publication of the white paper, the driver will change as water will have the issue of sustainability firmly imposed upon it.

A move to sustainability should change the basis on which the regulator views utilisation of water. The introduction of grey water treatment plants and water-efficient systems might well become a standard requirement in the planning process. Differentials in pricing for the misuse of water are certain to become a political issue.

Are future water shortages inevitable? During the past few years, Europe has experienced a northward migration of heavy water-using industries. It could follow that water-intensive agricultural practices could also be limited to certain areas as a result of water constraints. While Britain is not likely to turn into a desert in the next couple of decades, water shortages, hosepipe bans and droughts are not going to go away. The UK must start to use this precious resource in an efficient and sustainable manner.

Lord Redesdale is chairman of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association

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