England ‘fails to invest in water networks to avoid future droughts’ | Water

England is failing to invest in the water network needed to avoid a future of repeated severe droughts, with current policy equivalent to the government “keeping [its] fingers crossed,” Britain’s infrastructure chief has warned.

The current drought was a warning that water systems could not cope with the changing climate, with more hot dry spells interspersed with heavier rainfall, said Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.

“Investment is better than crossing your fingers, and than relying on emergency measures,” he warned.

Ministers could not prevent dry weather, but they could direct investment in infrastructure to cope with it, such as reservoirs and cutting waste, he said. “The government should set out what level of risk from drought they would see as reasonable, for people to manage and expect.”

Water bills may have to rise to pay for the investments needed, he warned. “If you want greater drought resilience, you have to increase water bills or general taxation [to pay for it]he told the Guardian in an interview.

Drought was declared in eight of England’s 14 regions on Friday, following a meeting of the National Drought Group, made up of ministers, civil servants, water companies and conservation groups. Five water bodies have so far introduced snake bans, although farmers have called for more as ministers have been told farmers face the ruin of up to half their crops.

In several areas of the drought-stricken south of England, people have been forced to queue in the street as their water systems failed. In the village of Northend in Oxfordshire, people have depended on tankers. Bottled water distributions began in and near Guildford in Surrey at the weekend following a pump failure at Netley Mills treatment plant. In Everton in Bedfordshire, an already unreliable supply has been further threatened by drought.

Hydrologists have said these are isolated incidents and that measures such as standpipes – a vivid memory for some of the last severe drought in 1976 – were highly unlikely to be needed in the current drought, as water companies were more resilient and better prepared than they were almost half a century ago.

The National Infrastructure Commission has estimated the cost of overhauling Britain’s water network at £20 billion by 2050, significantly less than the £27 billion the government earmarked for new roads this parliament, which campaigners say is not needed.

Armitt said this cost was dwarfed by the cost of drought. “You probably have to spend twice as much on bottled water from the back of trucks,” in increasingly frequent droughts, he warned.

New reservoirs should be strongly considered, he said, despite the difficulties in obtaining planning permission, particularly in south-east England.

Water metering was also probably needed to encourage people to cut consumption, but “the government is not keen”, he noted in an interview with the Guardian.

Armitt called for a national debate on how to finance water improvements. The two Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have called for action but refrained from setting out clear proposals for investment.

“You have to balance water investment – do you put it back through people’s bills or through general taxation?” Armitt asked. “You have to make sure that poor people are not penalized.”

He said the role of the water companies should be scrutinized. “There has been criticism of water companies paying dividends to investors. That has to be an issue for governments and regulators to decide, he said. “You could argue that water companies have underinvested – going forward the real challenge is for the government to say what level of performance the public should be entitled to expect.”

People can have a significant impact on water consumption by changing behaviour, for example by not leaving taps running and running washing machines only at full load. But this alone would not be enough, and the government under a new prime minister would face uncomfortable choices over the investments needed for new reservoirs and infrastructure, Armitt warned.

“There’s a cost of living crisis, especially with energy bills, and people don’t want to hear about water bills going up either,” he said. “But somehow we have to find a way to pay for this new infrastructure.”

Poorer households could be protected if the government stepped in to make current billing systems fairer, Armitt added.

England experienced its driest July since 1911, with only around 10% of average rainfall for the season in southern England. The period since November has been the driest eight-month period in England since 1976.

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