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Why water rationing is coming down the pipeline

Instead of securing our water supply, the government plans to radically reduce home usage.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK

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Body odour could soon be making a comeback. Why? Because the UK government is looking to impose stringent reductions on home water usage. The media have suggested that this might mean the end of power showers, but the limits being mooted in Whitehall will bear down on water use as a whole. This will affect showering, taking baths, hand washing, cleaning clothes, and more.

The plan is spelled out in a new 81-page report put out this week by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Titled Our Integrated Plan for Delivering Clean and Plentiful Water (or Our Plan for Water, for short), the document details how the government intends to plug what it believes will be a shortage of four billion litres per day in the public water supply by 2050. In part, this will be done, under the Environment Act 2021, by cutting household water use from an average of 144 litres per person per day to 122 per person per day in 2038, and then to just 110 litres per person per day by 2050.

Make no mistake, this is a positively draconian policy. Worst of all, it places most of the blame and responsibility for water management on to the consumer – letting the water companies, regulators and the government itself off the hook.

Last month, a House of Lords select committee reported that no new reservoirs will be built before 2029. It also said that water regulator Ofwat has ‘historically given more focus to a short-term desire to keep water bills low at the expense of long-term environmental and security-of-supply considerations’. In other words, the regulator has fallen asleep at the wheel, letting leaks multiply, sewage pile up and reservoirs fall into disrepair. Yet the implication of Our Water Plan is that we consumers are mostly at fault for the water shortages of the future. It is we who must tighten our belts, and we who must install smart meters to ration our use.

Water companies have escaped censure entirely. For instance, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey proclaimed last week that companies guilty of water pollution ‘could’ face unlimited penalties. But, after more than 300,000 sewage spills in 2022, she also concedes that she cannot stop such incidents ‘overnight’.

The problem with the government’s plan is that it is far keener on social engineering – in creating parsimonious, ecologically conscious citizens – than it is on the actual engineering of leak detection, leak repair, pipe replacement and all the rest.

This social engineering goes back a long way. Back in 2004, the London Assembly of the Greater London Authority, which was run by Labour left firebrand Ken Livingstone, blocked the construction of a desalination plant that could have supplied a potentially limitless amount of water to Londoners. Instead, the mayor favoured a ban on the use of garden hosepipes. This, it said, would be a ‘useful’ educational tool to ‘raise awareness’ of how precious water is.

Today, in the same vein, the new DEFRA report favours what it calls ‘a catchment-based approach’ to changing consumer behaviour. Essentially, DEFRA wants to draw NGOs specialising in rivers and waterways, together with schools, universities and local government, into a network of evangelists calling for lower water use. In the best traditions of nudging the plebs, Our Plan for Water says:

‘Evidence shows that a catchment-based approach can help drive behaviour change to reduce water demand. River-catchment partnerships in England have direct links to their local communities and engage with them on a range of education and engagement, volunteering and citizen-science activities. This direct engagement with the public and local businesses raises awareness within communities and builds local ownership of environmental issues, leading to sustained behavioural change.’

As far as eco-evangelists are concerned, what matters most is reducing ‘demand’ – whether that be for water, energy or travel. Building the infrastructure we need to meet demand always seems to be off the table.

It is worth reminding ourselves that there is no reason whatsoever for a developed, rainy country such as Britain ever to run out of water. No water is leaving the planet (even the very modest escape from the Earth of water’s constituent, hydrogen, is limited by a number of physical phenomena). Water scarcity is entirely a problem of mismanagement and bad government.

Calls for demand management and behaviour change are simply codewords for austerity and rationing. The government wants us to accept the blame for the shocking state of our water infrastructure ourselves, and to endure poor personal and home hygiene as a consequence.

Rest assured, the rich will not be giving up water sprinklers on their estates, nor spas in their basements. These water cutbacks will only be demanded of us commoners. It’s time we caused a stink about it.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Gratisography / Pexels.

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Topics Politics UK

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