Why Britain could face another hosepipe ban – despite constant rain

Tewkesbury Abbey surrounded by floodwater during heavy rainfall at the start of 2024
Tewkesbury Abbey surrounded by floodwater during heavy rainfall at the start of 2024 - ADRIAN DENNIS

For Kate Flounders, an allotment holder whose broccoli and corn have been all but ruined by constant rain in Hartlepool over the winter, the prospect of another hosepipe ban is simply a “kick in the teeth”.

It has been the wettest 18 months since records began, with firefighters being called out to 50 floods a day. But a combination of creaking water infrastructure, a major shortfall in reservoir capacity and a growing population, has led to warnings that, if rainfall dips below average over spring, hosepipe bans could yet be in the offing this summer.

Jamie Hannaford, a hydrologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says that low rainfall coupled with a warm season ahead “could put pressure on water supplies in areas where there is limited groundwater storage, which rely on rivers and reservoirs for water supply… reservoir stocks and river flows can be depleted rapidly during warm, dry spells in spring, even after wet winters,” which happened in 2010, when a wet winter and flooding in the northwest of England was followed by a drought.

“In this scenario, those supplies that depend on rivers and reservoirs, rather than groundwater, would be most vulnerable, posing potential problems for agriculture and wildlife.”

The thought of another summer of hosepipe bans is a maddening prospect for those like Flounders, who are now facing the double punishment of waterlogged winter months and a possible drought in the summer.

Kate Flounders
Allotment holder Kate Flounders says that the propect of another hosepipe ban is a 'kick in the teeth' - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Flounders, 43, a solicitor who tends to an allotment in Hartlepool in her spare time, says the land “has been underwater most of the winter. It’s soggy and the soil is heavy.”

That more crops might die a slow death over the summer is a further blow “for those trying to do their bit and look after their families,” she says – particularly given “water is handled incredibly badly in this country. We’re still running on mostly Victorian piping with the odd bit of Roman thrown in for good measure. The entire system needs an overhaul.”

In spite of global renown for our damp climate, we do seem remarkably bad at keeping enough water running. England and Wales are the only countries in Europe to have privatised their entire water system (as of 1989), with water quality monitored by the Environment Agency (EA; part of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, or Defra), and regulated by the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat), a non-ministerial government department.

According to an EA report released last week, declining water supplies will lead to a deficit of almost 5bn litres of water daily come 2050 – which would require 30 new reservoirs being built to maintain current levels of service.

Two are currently in the works in the east of England, and another is underway in Hampshire, to protect chalk streams – but given the last one was built in 1991, the scale of the task ahead suggests even these developments fall far short of requirements.

Campaigners suggest that our archaic system simply cannot cope with the current reliance on abstraction – where companies take water from sources such as natural underground reservoirs, called aquifers.

Distribution pipes – some of which have not been updated for decades – leak out a fifth of the water they carry; equivalent to around 1trn litres of water each year. Data from 2022 showed that these were being replaced at a rate of 0.05 per cent annually, meaning it would take 2,000 years to overhaul the entire system.

Almost all of the water in the south and south east of England comes from 250 boreholes drilled into the aquifer (as well as nearby rivers and reservoirs), last year breaching the limit of what they are allowed to extract more than 26 times. Part of the problem is increased usage.

The average person in England uses 146 litres of water daily, which continues to put pressure on a crumbling system, and that number appears to be climbing. South East Water said residents used 138m litres more water than average last summer, as a result of the rise in working from home.

Along with failure to increase capacity, there is also the issue of raw sewage spills – which more than doubled in England last year – reducing the existing clean water supply yet further.

The changing climate, where rainfall occurs in “all or nothing” bursts, also puts a country with inferior storage facilities at greater risk. More brief but heavy downpours means the water runs off the ground faster, absorbing less easily into the aquifer, which makes it more challenging to keep supplies topped up.

Last year, Cathryn Ross, then-interim chief executive of Thames Water, told a meeting that the dry summer before had led London to have “just three and a half weeks of water storage... It’s a bit crazy for a global city. We were running into some serious issues with water supplies last year.”

As the amount available is in decline, our population is growing – adding further strain to limited resources. One suggestion to ease the pressure is a new network of pipes that could take rainwater from the north to the drier south; there are also proposals for new reservoirs in the likes of Abingdon.

But years of failed promises have cast doubt on how likely these are to come to fruition. Just as in our housing crisis, a lack of momentum, combined with a sluggish planning system and local resistance, appear to have hit the building of new reservoirs, which can cost up to £2bn.

It’s a significant sum – particularly in light of the fact Thames Water, who were earlier this year ordered by Ofwat to resolve their “completely unacceptable” record on sewage dumping – may have to undergo emergency nationalisation, following private funders backing out of a £500m cash injection last week. (Chris Weston, its chief executive, told the BBC that such a scenario was “a possibility,” but a “long way off”.)

Thames Water
Thames Water 'may have to undergo emergency nationalisation' - Andrew Matthews/PA

Amid widespread hosepipe bans in the summer of 2022, Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, warned that ministers would need to overrule opposition from local residents, councillors and MPs to give new reservoirs a green light by 2025. He suggested that continuing to allow locals to veto such projects would mean that the new reservoirs Britain needs never get built.

Ministers insist that they are on the case, pointing to their “plan for water” which was published last year to tackle the problems of water quality and supply. But peers found the plan severely wanting, saying that, while it included the “acceleration” of £1.6 billion of new water infrastructure, under the current plan, the UK would still “not have built a single new major reservoir between 1991 and 2029”.

The plan therefore offers little comfort to homeowners, allotment holders, gardeners and groundsmen who, like Flounders, feel short changed. Adding to the anger among many members of the public is the fact that, despite its shortcomings, the system appears to be paying out well for shareholders, who pocketed £966m from England’s water companies in the financial year ending in 2022.

While the country awaits the structural changes needed to help ward off the constant threat of shortages, Waterwise UK, an organisation that encourages responsible water usage, says there is much more that everyone can do to ease the pressure on the system.

In their strategy for 2030 they outlined that 1.5bn litres of water could be saved each day by making changes such as retrofitting buildings to ensure as little as possible is wasted, and increasing access to information about how to conserve stores.

“If we do find ourselves with a hot summer then outside water use is where demand for water quickly soars – running a hosepipe for an hour uses the same amount of water as 12 baths,” says Jo Osborn, Waterwise’s deputy head of policy and public affairs.

“Ensuring people are fitting water butts and rainwater harvesting now, and planning their gardens to be resilient to heatwaves, is a key quick win we can action.”

They also advise that businesses keep a close eye on usage, such as regular meter checks in offices in case of leaks, and installing urinals that don’t flush constantly.

While Osborn says she is glad some efforts have been made to address conserving water, “we’d like to see momentum on progress against these to be moving faster... There needs to be a collective conversation about the water we use and an effort across the UK as we all have a part to play – whatever the weather.”

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