Water companies in England and Wales must continue to pick up the pace in tackling the impact of climate change on water supplies, according to the Consumer Council for Water (CCW).
The consumer group’s annual Water, Water, Everywhere? report reveals that while the industry has made positive progress in fixing leaks, these efforts must be accelerated to meet the immediate and long-term pressures on our water networks.
Karen Gibbs, Senior Policy Manager at CCW, commented: “The water industry has generally coped well with the increased demand for water throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and through the recent extreme weather events, but this does highlight some of the potential challenges ahead.
“That’s why we at CCW have lent our support to Government and regulators’ calls for companies to act ‘further and faster’ to maintain positive progress as part of the nation’s green economic recovery.”
That will require water companies stepping up investment and using innovation to identify the weak points within their networks and put in place appropriate measures to prepare for more extreme weather events.
Speeding up these efforts could prevent consumers suffering devastating disruptions to services such as sewer flooding, which occurred more than 30,000 times last year.
Ms Gibbs added: “No one can be in any doubt that we are experiencing more and more extreme weather patterns and events, from the deep freeze and sudden thaw of the ‘Beast from the East’ to the recent summer heatwave.
“We need the water sector to be resilient to climate change and to respond well to incidents when they occur.
“These essential services are fundamental to our daily lives and disruptions cause enormous inconvenience and anguish for the people affected.”
Sewer flooding – either inside or outside the home – is one of the most devastating service failures whether caused by heavy rainfall, wider flooding or blocked sewers.
Last year, incidents of internal and external sewer flooding increased by 14% and 15% respectively, with most wastewater companies reporting an increase.
Major storms and flooding had a significant impact on some companies’ performance – underlining the urgent need for more rapid investment to strengthen the network.
Wessex Water, Southern Water and Thames Water reported a decrease in internal sewer flooding in 2019-20, while Northumbrian and South West Water were the only companies to see decreases in external incidents.
By reviewing its responses to flooding incidents and focusing on better preparation for heavy rainfall, Northumbrian Water was able to reduce external sewer flooding by 41% in 2019-20.
CCW will be working with the companies to share the insight gained from these improvements with the rest of the industry.
Customers contacting CCW to seek help with sewer flooding complaints have reported that the experience left them unable to access basic facilities for several hours, with added time taken to disinfect and clean up the damage caused.
The growth in the number of customers facing this in 2019-20 is unacceptable, according to CCW.
In other areas explored by the report, progress is being made, but at a comparatively slow pace.
Leakage levels, overall water consumption and the length of time customers were cut off supply all decreased in 2019-20.
However, longer-term trends indicate that these improvements aren’t happening fast enough.
Overall water consumption has actually increased over the last five years and is continuing to do so as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown combined with an unusually warm spring and summer.
Small changes can make a big difference if we all play our part, so it’s essential that water companies help consumers to understand the value of water in their everyday lives and support them to use it wisely through practical advice and targeted communications.