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Infrastructure blog

How do we protect the future of the UK’s water infrastructure?

30 August 2022

A proactive and longer-term approach to maintenance and resource management is essential to protect our future water security.   

How do we protect the future of the UK’s water infrastructure?
Water is one of our most valuable resources. Image credit: Jon C/Shutterstock

Water security has dominated the news agenda this summer.

The environmental performance of water companies has steadily worsened and hit the headlines as sewage has been pumped into stretches of water up and down the country, including at popular British summer seaside resorts.

Analysis by the Liberal Democrats found water companies dumped sewage in public swimming spots for more than 160,000 hours last year.

The Labour Party have also obtained figures from the Environment Agency through freedom of information requests highlighting that raw sewage has been pumped into UK waterways for a total of 9,427,355 hours since 2016.

Pollution warnings have now been issued for almost 50 beaches in England and Wales. These came after heavy rain caused sewage overflow to be diverted into rivers and the sea.

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What will happen next?

The UK government intends to set out a comprehensive approach to improving water quality in an update to the 25-year environment plan in January 2023.

Yet as the national conversation around water supply and quality continues, proactive thinking is needed to protect our water infrastructure and ensure it is fit for purpose in future years.

Water is one of our most valuable resources. However, as a utility it’s often been less prominent in the public consciousness when compared to power or heating.

This was highlighted in a previous ICE State of the Nation report that identified that the public viewed water as the lowest priority sector for infrastructure funding.

The sewage crisis has reminded us of the need for more education around water, particularly regarding leaks and wastage.

Finding solutions to protect water security

While the role individuals and households can play is small, being conscious of how much water we use and conserving it as much as possible will prevent unnecessary waste.

Private action at a micro level also has a role to play. But ultimately, it’s the responsibility of water companies, regulators and policymakers to find solutions at a macro level.

Companies such as Anglian Water have highlighted that the future of the water industry will be stark without additional resources such as reservoirs.

In comparison to housing and other development pressures, there has been underinvestment in the UK’s water infrastructure.

This has negatively impacted our future water security leading to farmers facing crop failures, homes running out of water, and rivers and reservoirs drying up.

Where do we go from here?

Clearly, the next step is to focus on the bigger picture. Systemic changes can address the additional challenges to water infrastructure brought on by the climate emergency.

Sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) and maintenance

SuDS mimic natural drainage and provide necessary water storage space. Investment in an improved maintenance programme for SuDS on roads would help mitigate future flooding and pollution risks across our towns and cities.

Currently, the government has been slow to act in implementing SuDS schemes.

Schemes have been considered on a site-by-site basis rather than as part of a wider catchment or developed water resource management plan.

Improved implementation and maintenance of SuDs schemes is needed alongside an updated Storm Overflow Assessment Framework to reflect the changes in our urban environment and climate.

These would solve longer-term problems with our water infrastructure and ensure that improvements to the wastewater system aren’t overlooked.

In a May 2022 response to an Environmental Audit Committee report on water quality in rivers, the government said it’s currently undertaking a review of whether to implement Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water management Act 2010. This would introduce standards for the design, construction, maintenance, and operation of new SuDS.

ICE previously called for maintenance to be included within the second National Infrastructure Assessment. Therefore, an increased focus on maintenance is an important step in the right direction.

Repairing trust

It’s critical that water companies work to repair the extensive reputational damage that’s been created from the sewage crisis. Customer trust has fallen to its lowest point in 11 years.

Improved communication and transparency around their activities must focus on how they’ve learned from previous mistakes and are seeking to protect their assets in the future.

Bodies such as the Environment Agency also need to work more constructively with water companies to ensure necessary improvements to water infrastructure are made in future.

Global picture

By addressing our water security challenges domestically, we can positively contribute to the wider debate on global security.

A 2021 CIWEM event on global water security supported by ICE focused on how countries in the Global North, such as the UK, can help protect the future of water security in the Global South. Speakers suggested behavioural changes and the need for a systems-based approach to water management both on a domestic and global scale.

Access to water and sanitation for all is the sixth goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ongoing global water crisis is continually reviewed within the Water Action Decade (2018-2028) launched by the UN General Assembly.

ICE will continue to work with decision makers across the political spectrum and international organisations and governments to ensure the public get the water infrastructure they need and can trust it will be delivered.

In case you missed it

Watch the 2021 ICE sponsored CIWEM event on global water security.

  • Laura Cunliffe-Hall, interim lead policy manager at ICE