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  • by Karma Loveday

"Jaws of death" add bite to message on water efficiency

Environment Agency (EA) chief executive officer, Sir James Bevan, last week brought a storm of media interest in the need to use water efficiently, with his “jaws of death” speech at the annual Waterwise conference.

The phrase, which Sir James (pictured) admitted he inserted to grab attention, refers to the point at which demand outstrips supply on the charts in water company business plans, some 20-25 years hence. He explained: “Climate change plus growth equals existential threat”.Much of the speech was a call to action on how to avoid the jaws of death by embracing a twin track strategy of boosting supply while reducing demand.

Sir James backed Waterwise’s ambition to cut per capita consumption to 100 litres a day in the next couple of decades, from the current average of 140 litres. “We in the Environment Agency like that target, which we think is achievable,” he said. He cited a range of actions to support this including water labelling, new building regulations, a PCC target, sustainable drainage systems more metering and “sustainable place-making” such as in the Oxford Milton Keynes Cambridge Arc – putting sustainable use of water at the heart of the design and functioning of the place. He also highlighted the need to reduce leakage and noted the Environment Agency’s work to tackle unsustainable abstraction.

On the supply side, Sir James said all of new reservoirs, more transfers and desalination would be needed.

The EA chief went on to emphasise: “Avoiding the jaws of death is a joint effort. … So let’s also agree that we all need to up our game.” He listed the following key players and desired actions:

Government – “The government deserves credit. (How often do people say that?). It’s shown leadership with the publication last year of a 25 Year Environment Plan, with ambitious targets and an audacious goal: that we will be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.” Among the practical actions he said the government is taking include development of a National Policy Statement for water resources, further abstraction reform and developing a PCC target.

Politicians – “…Greater water resilience will require some controversial decisions on new infrastructure, which the politicians will need to support. And it’s not impossible that the price of greater water resilience is that people may actually need to pay more for water itself. That would be particularly controversial, and there are good arguments for and against. But we should not shy away from that debate.”

Water companies – “The water companies deserve more credit than they sometimes get. They deliver safe, clean water, day in day out. They do it reliably and at a price almost everyone can afford. They invest billions of pounds in improving the environment…All that said, the water companies will be the first to agree that they need to do more to boost public trust” – in particular by reducing leakage and pollution and building resilient supplies. “Some of the companies are doing this. But not all are, or not to sufficient degree or with sufficient pace…The companies need to lead this process. They shouldn’t wait to be required to manage down demand and enhance supply. Success will require them to engage with customers even more actively; and so to earn a new level of public trust.”

Regulators – “The three regulators work well together on a day to day basis. But we need to think harder together, and with the water companies, about how we craft a joined up regulatory framework in the future which will actively incentivise the strategic thinking and substantial investment in long term water resilience by the water companies that we all want.”

The NGOs – Sir James asked them to keep up the good work as delivery partners and lobbyists, but also to recognise government and business “largely share your goals. We may be human and we certainly make mistakes, but we are not actually evil. Like you, we love our children and we want to make the world a better place.” He asked too that NGOs “please recognise that while all of us want to protect our environment, we must also deliver sustainable growth. If we ask people to choose between the environment on the one hand or housing, jobs, and prosperity on the other, they will choose the latter.”

Environment Agency – referring to the risk of invasive species via water transfers, he said: “We are going to need to think creatively ourselves about how to unlock the transfers without unleashing the invaders”.

The public – “possibly the most important of all” actors in the coalition to escape the jaws of death. Sir James said: “The fact is that we won’t have long term water security unless all of us change our behaviour…we can do it. 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.”

The EA chief concluded that while the goal of long term water resilience is ambitious “it is also achievable”. He said: “We can do this. If by 2050 we reduced per capita consumption to 100 litres a day, leakage by 50%, and did nothing else, it would provide enough water for an additional 20 million people without taking any more from the environment. And who’s to say that by 2050 we couldn’t get to 80 or 70 litres a day? The world will be very different then.”

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