Britain runs dry as wasteful water industry springs a leak
As temperatures in England reached a scorching 40 degrees celsius, Southern Water had a message for its 5m customers.
“When the sun is up so is demand for water”, the company tweeted. “It’s vital we work together to save it and make sure there’s enough to go around.”
Similar warnings are being pumped out by the whole industry, along with the implied threat of a hosepipe ban if the current dry spell continues.
Southern Water has reported a spike in demand of “hundreds of millions of litres” per day, just as the record-breaking weather puts a strain on reservoirs. It has urged customers to take shorter showers, avoid using hose pipes or sprinklers and “leave the paddling pool in the shed”.
Yet critics say calls for conservation can just as easily be directed at the companies, who are serial offenders when it comes to wastage.
Britain’s water providers lost 2.34bn litres (515m gallons) daily through leaks in the year to March 2021 – enough to fill more than 900 Olympic swimming pools. That was up from 2.27bn litres per day the previous year, according to the Environment Agency (EA).
The number of serious pollution incidents also rose to 62, the highest level since 2013.
Repeated promises to fix the issues over the years have come to little, prompting Emma Howard Boyd, the agency’s chairman, to recently call for executives to face prison sentences for repeat pollution offences.
Likewise, Feargal Sharkey, the former singer of The Undertones who now campaigns for better water quality, says the companies are trying to pass the blame for the stretched state of the water network during the recent heatwave.
“It is a classic case of the Philistines trying to dictate to the rest of us what to do with our lives,” he says.
“We're talking about an industry that has extracted billions of pounds worth of value from those companies and leaked billions of litres of water out of their badly maintained, under invested, creaky, cracked, leaking pipe network - and they blame the consumer.
Sharkey adds: “They are in no position to lecture their customers about anything. And that’s before you even begin to discuss the sewage they have dumped into our rivers.”
While water companies have presided over huge leaks amid chronic underinvestment, they have also earned infamy for lavishly paying executives and dishing out huge dividends to investors.
In 2021, nine top industry executives pocketed more than £15m in pay, with United Utilities boss Steve Mogford’s package topping the list at £2.9m. Liv Garfield, the chief executive of Severn Trent, was the next best paid at £2.8m.
On top of this, water companies, which were privatised with no debt by Margaret Thatcher’s government, have paid out more than £70bn in dividends since the 1990s and borrowed more than £50bn.
At the same time, bills have risen by more than one third over the same period - and households are being told to expect further rises as providers are forced to repair ageing pipes and clean up their act on pollution.
As climate change makes heatwaves and other extreme weather events more common, resolving the issue of leaks will become ever more crucial.
Without concerted action, parts of the south and south east of England “will run out of water” in less than 20 years, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned, while the Committee on Climate Change says water shortages are one of five "priority risks" facing the UK because of rising temperatures.
In its 2020 report on the issue, the NAO said daily water demand in England and Wales was expected to reach 18bn litres by 2050 - up roughly 4bn.
About half of that increase could be met from fixing leaks alone, yet relatively little progress has been made.
As part of the plans to bolster Britain’s supplies, the Government told companies in 2016 to minimise leakage, changing its previous policy to balance the aim against keeping bills low.
Industry watchdog Ofwat has ordered companies to cut leaks by at least 16pc in the current regulatory period, running from 2020 to 2025.
Ofwat claims investment in the UK's water network doubled with privatisation and has remained consistent since 2000 at about £10bn a year, adjusted for inflation.
Companies are "well-funded and could invest more if they wanted to", the regulator adds.
However, some argue the regulator bears some of the blame for the present situation, for not pushing harder on network investment and instead focusing on keeping consumer bills low.
The effects of climate change are expected to erode some previous efforts, however, cutting total water supply by one billion litres by 2045.
In recent weeks, some regions had a preview of what a dryer future could look like - the levels of some of Devon and Cornwall’s biggest reservoirs dipped to their lowest point for decades.
A spokesman for South West Water told local media it was “confident that we have sufficient water stored in our reservoirs”, but added: “We always ask customers to think about their water usage to not just help save water but also help keep bills down.”
Water UK, which represents the industry, says companies are also “committed to doing everything they can” to reduce wastage, with plans in place to halve leakages by 2050.
“Great progress has already been made, with the last three years seeing some of the lowest levels ever recorded, and companies are increasingly putting innovation and technology at the heart of their efforts,” a spokesman added. “Reducing leakage is a huge challenge for the sector.”
Sensors, satellites and drones are among the technologies being deployed to detect and fix leaks more quickly and at lower costs.
But for critics like Sharkey, who has warned that London risks becoming one of the most water-stressed cities in the world, the response lacks urgency - and credibility.
“Unfortunately, the simple truth is, as consumers and taxpayers, we are the ones who will now have to deal with the excess and the greed of the water companies, as well as political and regulatory incompetence.”