England is facing an “existential crisis” and will not have enough water to meet demand within 25 years unless severe action is taken now, the head of the Environment Agency has warned.
Factors like climate change and population growth mean the country is facing the real prospect in a few decades of reaching the “jaws of death”, according to Sir James Bevan.
The man leading the agency says in the face of water scarcity, the country must tackle both sides of the equation: reduce demand and increase supply.
Bevan used his speech to call for ambitious targets including cutting people’s water use by a third and leakage from water company pipes by 50%, along with big new reservoirs, more desalination plants and transfers of water across the country.
Peoples’ behaviours is critical to solving the crisis, the water chief believes everyone can reduce demand by reducing leakage and by utilising more sustainable drainage systems - insisting on new building regulations to drive greater water efficiency. Bevan says wasting water needs to become "as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby".
Speaking at a London conference, he added: “In the last few decades we’ve radically changed behaviour on smoking (everybody did it) and seatbelts (nobody wore them). In the last two years we’ve changed behaviour on plastic. We need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea. We need everyone to take responsibility for their own water usage.”
With the population of the UK expected to soar from 67 million to 75 million in 2050, this will in turn drive more demand for water. But the Environment Agency says the average person’s daily water use of 140 litres could be cut to 100 litres in 20 years by more efficient use in homes and gardens.
In a bid to build more reservoirs – something that Bevan told the conference has not been done in decades – the environment boss backs government intentions to streamline the planning process so that legal hurdles can be navigated more easily. Despite this being a controversial method, he believes “it’s the right thing to do”.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) recommends that government should ensure that plans are in place to deliver additional supply and demand reduction of at least 4,000 Ml/day.
Responding to Bevan’s speech, a spokesperson for the NIC said: “England faces the very real prospect of drought over the next thirty years, so we welcome the Environment Agency’s call for decisive action now to change our whole approach to water management. We’re also pleased Sir James highlighted the need for new reservoirs and water transfers, which are key elements in building a more resilient approach that we have recommended, alongside tackling leakage.”