Water shortages set to strike England within decades

A lack of infrastructure means England is not prepared for future climate change-induced droughts
20 July 2020

Interview with 

Vanessa Speight, University of Sheffield




A report submitted to the UK government claims that parts of England may run out of water - within decades. These water shortages will be thanks to climate change making our winters wetter and our summers drier. And at the moment, the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to store enough water to weather the droughts. Phil Sansom heard about the problem from water systems expert Vanessa Speight...

Vanessa - By 2050, certain areas will have a quite drastic decline in rainfall, which means a quite drastic decline in water supply that's available for people to use in their homes.

Phil - Is that a serious problem in terms of drinking water?

Vanessa - That is a serious problem. Summers might have 20 or 30% decrease in the water supply, which means we are going to have to have some alternative ways to provide supply, to keep using water the way we use it right now.

Phil - That's bizarre. Because here in the UK, you don't really think about water as a limited resource like that, do you?

Vanessa - No. There is a very common perception here that it always rains and it will always keep raining. But in fact, that's not going to be the case, and we've already seen some quite hot and dry summers in the last few years. So there's all indications that this kind of behavior will continue. Certain regions, particularly in the South and the Southeast will have a worse problem in terms of lowered rainfall, where other areas might actually have more precipitation in the North and in Scotland.

Phil - So are you saying that climate change predictions say that there's going to be overall just less rain?

Vanessa - We may have on an annual basis, the same average or the same total, but actually that will come in different ways. So we'll have potentially longer dryer patches without rain and then possibly long wet patches with lots of rain and the potential for flooding.

Phil - Ah, I get that it's an issue having those extremes, but if there's the same overall rain, then why is water supply going to be an issue?

Vanessa - The problem in the UK is really about storage. So, many countries that are very dry, have vast, vast reservoirs that they've built to collect up water. Sometimes over years. That kind of reservoir storage is not as significant in the UK. The reservoirs here are relatively small and it's a small country. There's not really a lot of room to build vast new reservoirs to store the kind of water that we might need .

Phil - Where does our drinking water come from at the moment then? Is it from the small reservoirs or do we have underground water or what?

Vanessa - Predominantly it's from the reservoirs, which is runoff from the rain that's collected up. And there are a lot of these smaller reservoirs around. So it's not that there's no storage. There's just not potentially enough. There are some groundwater sources, depends on which area you live. The East in Norfolk and some of the parts of the country have quite a lot of ground water. And that's also related to rain because it's relying on the rainfall, trickling down through the soil and recharging the groundwater storage.

Phil - Part of the reason I think, that water doesn't seem like, you know, it's not like a fossil fuel that you burn, is because, you know, we just, when we use it, we don't use it up. It just goes down the toilet, or the sink, or the bath. I mean, could that water not just get used to go straight back into what we drink? I mean, not straight back.

Vanessa - Yes. And it's a very common practice in other parts of the world to reclaim the water, or reuse the water from the wastewater treatment works. That's not a common practice in the UK right now, but it is a solution that could offer a lot of potential. Particularly if the wastewater discharges are going to the ocean and basically are lost, it could be used for lots of different uses for agriculture, for industrial uses. At the extreme, you can use reverse osmosis to reclaim water from sewage. And that's in fact what they use on the space station and on rockets. So it is technically possible. It's just a question of building that infrastructure, and thinking more creatively about how we use water that's matching the quality to the use that we want to have.

Phil - If there's this predicted time limit, then what was it? 20 years?

Vanessa - By 2050, possibly earlier.

Phil - Oh, okay. Well, if there's this urgency, what's the plan? What needs to happen?

Vanessa - There isn't a great plan yet. Each of the water companies do their own plan, but that doesn't necessarily take into account national issues. And so really now is the time to develop a serious longterm plan. And this infrastructure takes many, many years to plan for and build. So it's not something we can just snap our fingers and say, Oh, next week, there's going to be a drought. So we'll just install a new treatment works. It doesn't quite happen that quickly.


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