Leaking pipes across England are causing three billion litres of water to be wasted every day, with MPs saying that the situation is so dire that the country could run out of supply by 2040.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that the water industry regulator Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have “taken their eye off the ball” when it comes to reducing water loss and repairing leaks.
In a scathing report, the Public Accounts Committee added that there had been no improvements in leak reduction over the past 20 years because of “complacency and inaction.”
More than 4.5 billion litres of water was lost daily to leaks in the early 1990s. A concerted effort by stakeholders reduced that number to three billion by the start of the century but no progress has been made at all in the subsequent two decades, according to the report.
The report warned that water supply in parts of England will run out by 2040 unless “urgent action” is taken to cut wastage. The three billion litres lost a day accounts for one fifth of the volume of water used.
“It is very hard to imagine, in this country, turning the tap and not having enough clean, drinkable water come out – but that is exactly what we now face,” said Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee.
“Continued inaction by the water industry means we continue to lose one fifth of our daily supply to leaks.”
“Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we have got the last 20 years: nowhere.
“Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act: we look now to the department to step up, make up for lost time and see we get action before it’s too late.”
The Public Accounts Committee criticised the government for failing to be clear with water companies and urged Ofwat to produce annual league tables highlighting water companies’ leaking performance, allowing the public to see who the worst offenders are.
Ofwat’s PR19 document was their latest five-yearly review into the water industry and told water companies in England and Wales that they must reduce leaks by 16% by 2025, saving enough water to supply every person in the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.
Technological innovations to help water companies identify leaks quicker and carry out quick and permanent emergency pipe repairs could help to cut the amount of water wasted and enable suppliers to pass on efficiency savings to consumers via reduced water bills.
The Public Accounts Committee made clear in its report that it remained unconvinced that targets would be met without a more proactive approach.
“Defra has belatedly set annual targets for water companies and longer-term targets to reduce leakage by a third by 2030 and by half by 2050,” the report says.
“Ofwat assures us that companies are exposed to substantial penalties if they do not meet their targets over the next five years and is confident that the worst performing companies are now starting to get their act together.”
“Ofwat now expects leakage to fall by 16% between 2020 and 2025, which would result in 561 million litres of water a day being saved.”
“However, meeting the targets relies on unknown and untested approaches. We are unconvinced by Ofwat’s hope that water companies will ‘surprise themselves’ at what they can achieve and call on the Department and Ofwat to be more proactive in ensuring companies meet leakage targets.”
Other recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee included compulsory labelling on appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers to make it clear how much water they require and waste.
More should also be done to encourage consumers to reduce the amount of water they use, helping to conserve supplies. The current approach to educating the public on saving water was said to be uncoordinated.
“Awareness of the need for water efficiency is very low compared to that of saving energy,” said the report.
“There is no evidence of the impact on consumer awareness or behaviour of what water companies are doing.”
Responding the Public Accounts Committee and the suggestion that water supply in England could run out by 2020, a Defra spokesperson said, “”We absolutely recognise the need to safeguard our water supplies for future generations.”
“We are already taking a tougher approach to poor performance and wastage within the water industry, while also finding ways to increase supply.”
An Ofwat spokesperson added, “This is a highly important issue and Ofwat will carefully consider the committee’s report and recommendations.”
“This is why we have taken strong action to improve long-term planning and have set out a £51bn programme over the next five years to make major reductions to leakage, cut pollution by a third, and back new infrastructure.
“This report also serves as another reminder that water companies must stay focused on reducing leakage and improving water efficiency. We will continue to push ourselves and work with government, regulators, companies and others to make sure we all deliver for customers and the environment.”
According to several water companies in the south east, the region has less water available to it than countries like Morocco. Currently, a very dry year would see the likes of Thames Water, Affinity Water and Southern Water have to impose emergency measures such as hosepipe bans to restrict usage for their 13.7 million combined customers.
With demand set to increase as a result of population growth and climate change, these areas will be the first in England where water supply will run out if more is not done to reduce losses through pipe repair and protect reserves.
You can read the full Public Accounts Committee report into on the Parliament website.