Government accused of 'taking their eye off the ball' over looming water shortages

Emma Gatten
The EA has said we face water running out in parts of England within 20 years

The bodies responsible for water supply have been accused of “taking their eye off the ball” and leaving parts of England at serious risk of running out of water in the next 20 years. 

Regulator Ofwat, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Environment Agency will need to take urgent action to make sure taps do not run dry, the Public Accounts Committee said. 

It said the construction of HS2 poses a “particular risk” when it comes to abstracting too much water from rivers and other sources, requiring up to 10 million litres per day to facilitate tunnelling.

The PAC, which oversees government expenditure, was particularly damning of Defra, which it accused of a “failure of leadership” on water supply. 

More than 3 billion litres a day are lost to leakage, in a situation the PAC said was “wholly unacceptable”. It called on Defra to publish annual league tables showing water companies’ performances on tackling leakage. 

The Environment Agency has been warning for over a year that the country risks running out of water within 25 years, as a result of the changing climate, population growth and a lack of investment in infrastructure. 

But the PAC said the Government has failed to develop a national message to persuade consumers to use less water. A recent campaign launched by the EA relies solely on voluntary contributions from the water industry. 

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “It is very hard to imagine, in this country, turning the tap and not having enough clean, drinkable water come out - but that is exactly what we now face. Continued inaction by the water industry means we continue to lose one fifth of our daily supply to leaks.

“Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we’ve got the last 20 years: nowhere. Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act: we look now to the Department to step up, make up for lost time and see we get action before it’s too late.”  

A Defra spokesperson said: “We absolutely recognise the need to safeguard our water supplies for future generations, which is why our National Framework for Water Resources sets out a bold vision for bringing together consumers, businesses and industry to sustainably protect our water supplies.  

“We are already taking a tougher approach to poor performance and wastage within the water industry, while also finding ways to increase supply.  

“But everyone has a part to play, and we urge people to be mindful of their usage and look at practical ways to save this precious resource in their daily lives.”

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