England set to run short of water within 25 years, Environment Agency warns

Telegraph Reporters
Depleted water stocks in Selset reservoir in the North Pennines earlier this month - North News & Pictures

England is set to run short of water within 25 years, the chief executive of the Environment Agency has warned.

The country is facing the "jaws of death", Sir James Bevan said, at the point where water demand from the country’s rising population surpasses the falling supply resulting from climate change.

Action is needed by the public to reduce their water use, water companies must cut leaks and new desalination plants and reservoirs must be built, the agency's chief executive has warned.

Wasting water must become "as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea", he is warning at a conference at water-saving organisation Waterwise.

Demand for water is set to rise as the population increases, while supplies are likely to shrink as climate change kicks in, with hotter drier summers, less predictable rainfall and a higher risk of droughts.

The point where the line of rising demand crosses the line of falling supplies on a graph - known by some as the jaws of death and spelling the moment there will not be enough water to meet needs - could occur within 25 years.

On current projections many parts of the country will face significant water shortages by 2050, particularly in the heavily-populated South East.

The reduction in available water will also hit wildlife and habitats such as chalk streams, which are home to species including trout, otters and kingfishers, but are already under threat from demand for drinking water.

But if individual consumption was cut from 140 litres a day in England to 100 litres by 2050 and leakages were halved, it would provide enough water for an additional 20 million people without taking any more from the environment, Sir James said.

"Unless we all act to reduce water use and wastage, in a few decades' time there will not be enough clean water," he said.

"Demand for water will rise as the population grows, whilst water supply is likely to reduce as the effects of climate change kick in.

"Around 25 years from now, where those two lines cross is known by some as the jaws of death - the point at which we will not have enough water to supply our needs, unless we take action to change things.

"We can foresee this moment and there is still time to avoid it. But we need to change our attitudes to wasting water so it becomes as socially unacceptable as throwing your plastic bags into the sea.

"We need to use less water and use it more efficiently."

He said water companies, regulators, environmental charities and the public all had an important role to play.

Supplies need to be increased through more desalination plants, which take saltwater from the sea and turn it into drinkable freshwater.

And new reservoirs are needed, though he acknowledged they are controversial with none built in recent decades "because clearing all the planning and legal hurdles necessary is so difficult and local opposition so fierce".

Products such as toilets and appliances should have water efficiency labels, better building standards could make new homes more sustainable and design of towns and cities to protect rivers and create new wetlands is also needed.

It comes after it emerged Britain’s water companies are working on new plans to pipe water from the mountains of Wales and the rainy North of England to densely populated regions in the South.

The plans could help to avoid expensive infrastructure investments such as building new reservoirs or desalination plants, which experts say will be needed to keep taps running in the South East.

An alliance of southern ­water companies, including Thames Water and Southern Water, told a committee of MPs this week that it is in talks with two other regional groups to transfer supplies from the North to the South via the river Severn.

Trevor Bishop, who organises the Water Resources South East (WRSE) group, said the project is designed to tap water in the relatively wet North, but could also draw from Welsh supplies.

Currently the UK trades less than 5pc of its water resources to balance supplies between neighbouring ­regions, according to figures from the regulator.

Ofwat estimates that the ­industry could save almost £1bn by opening the floodgates on more trading between regions.

The plans for large-scale inter­-regional water sharing were raised by the National Infrastructure Commission last year in a report that warned England faces a one-in-four chance that the taps will run dry within the next 30 years unless the industry creates a new national water system.

The WRSE said that prolonged dry spells are reducing what water companies can abstract from them to water crops and supply homes and businesses.

The Environment Agency has agreed to grant a drought permit to Severn Trent. The FTSE 100 water company, which serves the Midlands, said it needs permission to draw extra water supplies from its reservoirs due to lower than average rainfall over the last eight months.