Is London going to run out of water and how soon?

Is London going to run out of water and how soon?

We might get showers tomorrow and Tuesday and storms on Wednesday, but nothing like enough of either to rehydrate the dried out capital. A drought has been declared and serious, sustained rain looks weeks away. Is London going to run out of water?

Not yet, according to James Bevan, chief executive of the government’s Environment Agency, but maybe by the middle of the century. In a speech in February he said the whole of England could soon approach “the jaws of death”, by which he meant “the point on water companies’ planning charts some 20 years from now when, if we don’t intervene, the demand for water in this country will outstrip supply.” Climate change “will make water supply more erratic and cause more droughts,” he warned, while population growth will push up demand.

Bevan hasn’t only just arrived at this view. He also expressed it at a conference held in London in March 2019, the same year Labour London Assembly member Leonie Cooper published a report called Running Out or Flooded Out? which assessed both the risk of water shortages and the risk of floods – a novel paradox of increasingly extreme weather, at least in England and the rest of the UK.

On shortages, Cooper, like Bevan, highlighted “increasingly dry summers and unexpected heatwaves, meaning we cannot continue to rely on rainwater to replenish water stocks” and cited the Environment Agency in stating that “water shortages are far more likely than people might expect”. She picked out as a “key finding” that “25% of the water put into Thames Water’s network is lost through leaks from pipes”.

Strikingly, Thames Water itself puts the percentage lost today at “almost 24%” or more than 600 million litres a day – not a huge improvement in three years, though significantly better than the 900 million a year going missing in the early years of this century.

Thames Water doesn’t supply only London, of course, and neither does it supply all of it. Parts of the capital get their water from Affinity Water, which serves north west London as well as some of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex, Essex & Suffolk Water, which covers Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Redbridge, and the self-explanatory Sutton & East Surrey (SES) Water. Thames Water expects to introduce a hosepipe ban very soon, but ITV reports that Affinity and SES have said they aren’t yet at that stage and neither is Essex & Suffolk.

Despite that moderately reassuring news, the long-term water security of London is an increasingly pressing issue. Hosepipe bans were only just averted after a dry July 2018. During the same year, parts of Lea Bridge in Hackney near the border with Waltham Forest were left under water after a Thames Water pipe burst. Last week, another Thames Water pipe burst at the junction of Tollington Road and Hornsey Road in Islington. Water, water everywhere, yet nothing like enough water either.

Cooper’s report found that average water consumption in London is 149 litres per person per day – slightly higher than the national average of 141 litres. Lowering water consumption would help, and Copper urged Sadiq Khan to collaborate with the water companies on a campaign to use less water. She also recommended he work with them to roll out “a water efficiency retrofitting pilot and water meter installation programme across London” and that he insist on property developers selecting “the most water efficient appliances” in new buildings.

Another measure which would make a big difference would be the building of a new reservoir at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, described in Cooper’s report as “the best solution to ensure supply”. She hoped to see its completion by 2037 at the latest, but although the idea has been around for years, as of January the latest plans were still being consulted on. And even though the reservoir would store millions of litres, it still wouldn’t make up for the leaks. It’s plain that there are still a lot of water works to do.

Photograph: Millfields Park in Hackney.

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Categories: Analysis

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