Water supply and security is an issue that is coming to the fore of the national environmental debate. Last year, the effects were clear to see with numerous Temporary Use Bans being issued across the country within short periods of time of each other. Today, East Anglia, Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly remain in ‘drought’ status. The Environment Agency (“EA”) have estimated by 2050 that England will require an extra 3,435 million litres per day to meet the increased water demand.

Drought Management in the UK

In 2020, the EA launched the National Framework for Water Resources (“NFWR”) which aims to ensure that by 2050 leakage rates have been cut by 50%; demand is reduced to an average of 110 litres per person per day; and envisages the construction of new reservoirs, desalination plants and water transfer schemes under a new Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development (RAPID).

Meanwhile, under the Water Industry Act 1991 a water undertaker must produce a drought plan every five years. A drought plan generally sets out the actions a water undertaker will take before, during and after a period of drought. It outlines: (i) methods of communication to inform customers about a drought, (ii) information to help customers reduce their water usage, (iii) water restrictions that can be placed on households and businesses, (iv) information regarding maintenance of the drinking water supply and methods of water extraction from the environment, and (v) promotion of water saving measures and decreasing the numbers of leaks.

What actions can water companies take during drought conditions? 

The Water Resources Act 1991 (“WRA”) underpins water undertakers’ powers to apply for drought permits and drought orders during drought conditions.

A drought permit allows the water undertaker to (i) take water from any source specified in the permit application or (ii) modify or suspend conditions on an abstraction licence held by the water company.

A drought order permits the same powers as a drought permit but also allows the water undertaker to discharge water to specified places and to prohibit or limit particular uses of water under the Drought Direction 2011.

An emergency drought order operates in a very similar way to a drought order. In addition to the powers found in a drought order, a water undertaker can also, for example, set up and supply water by means of standpipes, rota cuts or water tanks in a water undertaker’s areas. 

Water undertakers have escalating levels of action that can be taken to restrict their customers water usage. Generally, the stages are as follows:

Impending drought

In the event of an impending drought, a water undertaker should begin an awareness campaign via radio, newspapers, social media etc. to alert customers to a possible period of drought and to ask customers to use water sparingly.

Early stages of a drought  

By this stage, water undertakers will start a more intensive campaign of awareness to encourage customers to reduce their water usage. At this stage, water undertakers will enforce Temporary Use Bans which will restrict customers from watering grass, topping up ponds, filling swimming pools etc.

Severe drought

The next level of action would be for a water undertaker to restrict non-essential water use. This is a severe measure which will affect the economic activity of businesses. The government will have to grant a Drought Order to allow these restrictions to be introduced. The water undertaker will also have to apply to the EA for a Drought Permit to allow us to take more water from certain sources.

In serious droughts (once every 50-100 years) water undertakers may wish to introduce additional supplies such as emergency raw water pipeline transfers, temporary desalination units and alternative sources for non-drinking water use, carry out rota cuts (i.e., when water usage is restricted at certain periods of times), or set up standpipes in the street for customers to collect water. For these measures to be employed, the government would need to grant an Emergency Drought Order. Such measures have not been undertaken in recent years, and are, as stated, only reserved for emergencies.

So, what to watch out for this upcoming year? Keep an eye on the Price Review 2024, The Government’s Water Efficiency Roadmap, RAPID consultations for new infrastructure spanning the UK and, of course, the weather…