UK Water Crisis ‘Down To Conservative Government Failures’

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You would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the UK, with its famously damp weather, would be relatively immune to the issues presented by the global water crisis, but this in fact could not be further from the case.

Water is becoming increasingly problematic for countries all over the world as climate change takes hold and the UK is certainly not exempt from this, with ageing infrastructure, increasing urbanisation and pollution all having a big impact on both water quantity and quality across the nation.


Over the last few years, sewage pollution, water supply interruptions and flooding in urban areas have all increased – and this is being put down to a decade of Conservative government failures by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), which is now calling for an independent water inquiry to be set up.


According to the Guardian, this current government has failed to bring in rules that would see sponge cities set up around the country, which would have been effective at reducing sewage pollution and flooding, as well as helping to prevent water supplies being cut off for both businesses and domestic properties.


What are sponge cities?


Sponge cities are a relatively new concept but one that could have a vital role to play where flood prevention is concerned.


Urbanisation inevitably brings with it an increase in impermeable surfaces, which leads to surface water runoff, overwhelming the sewerage system and contributing to extreme flood events.


But sponge cities represent a sustainable solution to a complex problem, designed to replicate natural environmental processes that ensure cities and towns are able to absorb, store and purify rainwater.


A range of different infrastructure techniques are involved, everything from urban wetlands and green roofs to permeable pavements, all of which help to slow rainwater flow and ensure it is released gradually into waterways like rivers, lakes and streams.


As well as helping to reduce the risk of flooding, sponge cities are also effective at improving water quality, a key concern for much of the UK right now.


Green and sustainable infrastructure helps support natural filtration processes, with pollutants removed from rainwater before it enters rivers and streams. This in turn delivers positive outcomes for ecosystems and river health.


Slow adoption


As Alastair Chisolm, director of the CIWEM, explained to the news source, rules to create sponge cities should have been introduced in 2011, but they were shelved in 2015 and since then there have been 13 years of delays.


His comments come as the organisation published its Fresh Water Future report, calling on the next government to carry out an independent investigation into water companies, which have been accused of both profiteering and widespread pollution. It also wants to see regulators looked into for failures to control the privatised industry appropriately.


The report interviewed a broad range of environmental and water industry professionals, with widespread dissatisfaction seen with regards to the ownership and operations of the various suppliers. In all, just six per cent of those asked said they would support the current approach to regulation, corporate governance and ownership.


Fresh Water Future


The publication renewed the call for sponge cities to be implemented, following failures by the Conservative government to bring in rules under schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.


If this was introduced, developers would have to install sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) in new projects, but ministers have argued that these regulations would prove too expensive for developers.


Although schedule 3 has not yet been made mandatory for developers, it may well be pushed through in response to public pressure, with outcries over sewage pollution becoming commonplace.


Furthermore, misuse of combined sewer overflows into rivers has been hitting the headlines more frequently over the last few years, something that should only happen in exceptional circumstances, so it may just be a matter of time before action is taken to prioritise SuDS in new developments.


The report went on to note: “Sponge cities are not a new concept and are being delivered internationally to manage demands for growth amidst water – typically flood and drought – crises.


“In the UK we have our own water crises spanning these same challenges of either too much or too little water, as well as pollution. Greening our urban spaces is a win-win approach on all these fronts. We must flip the mindset that treats rainwater as a waste product to be got rid of in the urban environment, into one where it is a treasured resource.”


The Fresh Water Future white paper also questioned 4,000 members of the public and found that 71 per cent of people in England believe that water supplier profits should be capped because of poor environmental performance, while two-thirds said they believed too much profit was being made.


Last year, it was revealed that privatised water and sewage companies around the country paid out £1.4 billion in dividends in 2022, despite public outcries regarding sewage overflows and a hike in domestic bills.


The Financial Times analysed accounts of the ten largest water suppliers in the country, finding that the figures were actually higher than originally publicised because some companies have layered corporate structures and various subsidiaries (only one of which is regulated by industry watchdog Ofwat).


Paying out dividends means that there is less funding available from customer bills to make investments in the infrastructure required, including sewage treatment and water mains.


Changes may well be afoot, however, with Ofwat now concerned about the sector’s dividend transparency. It is now planning to update licence conditions so that dividends can be blocked from April 2025 if suppliers appear to be vulnerable financially.