Water Transfers and Interconnections: Are we prepared for drought

Back in June 2012, after two dry winters in England and Wales, ICE published State of the Nation: Water. Drought was a national headline and our water suppliers were having to explore emergency measures. Our report made a number of recommendations to improve UK water security – one of those being the role of water transfers and interconnections.

A section of the Ely Ouse to Essex Transfer Scheme, in East Anglia – water bound for the sea at The Wash is re-directed southwards, for use by customers of Essex & Suffolk Water
A section of the Ely Ouse to Essex Transfer Scheme, in East Anglia – water bound for the sea at The Wash is re-directed southwards, for use by customers of Essex & Suffolk Water

We then had one of our wettest ever summers, followed by two stormy, flood hit winters. Our most recent winter’s rainfall was close to average. It’s understandable that the issue of drought has dropped down the public agenda, but these recent weather patterns highlight the uncertainty we face. The question remains – are we sharing our water resources effectively enough to cope with future shortages?

Internationally, many countries are in the midst of severe water stress. This includes developed nations such as the US, where California state governors recently imposed unprecedented limits on water supply, and Australia, where many measures are in place including decade-long restrictions in Melbourne.

In the UK, it’s likely that our next drought is not far away. Since 2012, our water suppliers have been working hard to improve the way we manage our resources. The need for innovative engineering approaches has never been greater.

Transferring water between different companies and suppliers is not a new thing. But now more than ever, suppliers are being encouraged to identify new transfer schemes to build more resilience into their strategies. Environment Agency data from 2014 shows that over 30 new major schemes were proposed for the 2015-20 AMP6 period, with capacity to transfer up to 200Ml of water per day. The revised water trade market will also help, allowing water companies greater choice in obtaining alternative resources.

One important element of the role of water transfers is contingency. Many new schemes are being set up for use only some of the time, or to go unused unless required during critical shortages. An example of such a new scheme is from Portsmouth Water to Southern Water (to Moorhill Service Reservoir) which will transfer around 10Ml/d under normal conditions, but has capacity to transfer up to 30Ml/d.

While those in charge of securing our supplies should be commended for delivering increased resilience since 2012, the test will come when the next drought hits.

We can also gain knowledge and learn lessons from strategies in other countries. Massive water transfer schemes have been built in some locations, such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which transfers water from Lesotho’s water-abundant mountains to the population and mining industry of South Africa. The project cost billions to construct – and while it fulfils its function to transfer water, it has also delivered great economic benefit to Lesotho and provided enough energy from hydropower schemes to cover almost its entire energy need.

While progress in the UK has been positive – and appropriate for our needs in terms of infrastructure scale – it is vital we avoid complacency while our weather patterns have been close to “normal”. We must continue to identify effective ways to share our water resources.

Many other measures can also make a difference, such as storage, treatment, re-use and demand management. As the impacts of climate change and extreme weather become more pronounced, we will need to make most of all of these measures to ensure future water security.

Learn more

ICE’s knowledge and policy activity for the water sector is guided by our Water Expert Panel. If you’d like to find out more, or would like to get involved with the Panel, please contact water@ice.org.uk.

The Water Panel has prepared a briefing sheet 'What are water transfers and interconnections?' providing an indepth look at the subject and a range of further reading.