Last reviewed 11 March 2015

The Water Taskforce is the latest attempt to modernise and create a water supply and management sector fit for the 21st century, but, asks Dave Howell, can this latest initiative drive fundamental change?

Water — it has become a highly charged political subject after the widespread flooding experienced last year. As a resource, water has become the focus of the Water Taskforce, an initiative from Business in the Community, which aims to develop a deeper understanding of how water is part of the UK’s infrastructure, and how water can be better managed with the creation of long-term action plans.

The Water Taskforce will be chaired by United Utilities CEO Steve Mogford, who said: “Businesses have the capabilities to make a difference. We all use water, and through engaging employees and driving efficiencies in our operations, we can achieve savings in water use and wastage. We can also have an important influence through our supply chains, products and customer behaviour.”

Richard Flint, Yorkshire Water CEO, said: “Water resilience and the security of our resources is too big an issue for any one business to deal with on its own. It’s vitally important that business leaders join with the Government to consider how we can act now to preserve our most precious resource for future generations.”

And Water Minister Dan Rogerson also commented: “Across the country, many individual businesses are doing great things to help protect water quality and the environment. We believe businesses working together and sharing best practice is crucial to encourage others to do the same. That is why we are providing the Water Stewardship in Food Supply Chains Project within the Water Taskforce with £150,000 of government funding, to help boost collaboration and share knowledge across industry.”

Facilities managers and those connected with improving wastewater disposal and recycling have a number of compliance issues to contend with. The Carbon Trust’s Standard for Water, The Water Research Partnership, The European Water Label, The UK Water Partnership, and of course the Water Act 2014, all add to the regulatory regime, with each attempting to develop a strategy for water conservation, delivery, disposal and reuse.

Water then is on the agenda, but businesses remain largely reticent when water efficiency and water security are concerned. Says Jacob Tompkins, Managing Director, Waterwise: “There seems to be little coherent strategy around water. What Government has done seems to me to be rather kneejerk. But I would say that the report from Business in the Community, which looks at water when we are not in water crisis, is welcome. In fact we are in the process of setting up a review of water efficiency in the UK with the view to devising a national water strategy.”

Water stress

Water costs can be between 1 and 2% of a company’s turnover. Savings of 30–50% can be achieved by investing in no- and low-cost water reduction techniques and technologies — a company with an annual turnover of two million could save up to £20,000 per year. Almost one quarter (22%) of companies responding to CDP water programme’s 2014 information request reported that issues around water could limit the growth of their business. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, small firms lost more than £830m because of the 2013/14 floods in the UK, with the average cost to each business in flood-hit areas estimated at £1531.

One of the most significant components of the Water Act 2014, which received Royal Assent on 14 May 2014, is the opening of the water market to more competition. For businesses and other organisations looking to integrate and improve the efficiency of their water usage, competition within the upstream market is important to consider.

The Act allows new providers of water sources and new treatment services for wastewater to enter the marketplace for the first time. For facilities managers for instance, landowners with spare water supplies could input this water into the network to supply their own customers under a self-supply licence.

Waterwise’s Jacob Tompkins commented: “The large number of facilities managers [FMs] are in an ideal position to offer water services, which I think may take the main water companies by surprise. FMs are on the ground and can offer remote meter reading for instance, and a whole host of other services at cost-effective rates. And there could be other entrants into the sector that aren’t actually water companies. So I think competition is good for industry, but who delivers the water services in the future could be very interesting to see develop over the next few years.”

James Dodds, MD, Envireauwater also said: “The water market and its main players are quite insular in that they are active in their catchment area, but don’t feel they have to look at expanding their services. Water is also very different from other energy consumables in that it virtually remains the same as it is used. It isn’t consumed as electricity or gas is, but has to be treated and recycled, making water a very different utility when it comes to managing it as a resource. At the moment I don’t see how the current status quo will change.”

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The Water Taskforce is then the latest attempt to move the water industry forward and modernise its operations. The ability to have competition in the water sector, as enshrined in the Water Act is all well and good, but little change is about to take place.

How could things change? Envireauwater’s James Dodds concluded: “I would go back in time. I would bring water management back under government control. There would be an agency of some sort that would oversee the delivery of water services. This agency would look at the availability of water, such as managing reservoirs, but also look closely at flooding, to balance how we need to manage the supply and movement of water. So water management would be integrated on a national basis. This is the system we had in the 1960s. The water companies would then buy their raw water from this agency, and treat and distribute the water to their end customers.”

What is clear is that the historical inertia that is present in the current water industry will be difficult to dislodge. Legislation offers a mechanism for change, and for facilities management businesses or even on-site FMs themselves to take more control of water, but making these kinds of strategic decisions is difficult within the framework of today’s water industry.

Research has indicated that by 2030 the demand for fresh water globally will increase by 40%. Climate change will ensure aggressive weather events will become more common with flooding a major issue. Water then isn’t like other consumables, and should be treated differently. Whether the Water Taskforce will begin to make the changes that are needed remains to be seen.