Last reviewed 10 July 2020

A report released this week by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that parts of England could run out of water within 20 years, stating that the Government has failed to be clear with water companies on how they should balance investment in infrastructure with reducing customer bills.

Committee chair, Meg Hillier said: “It is very hard to imagine, in this country, turning the tap and not having enough clean, drinkable water come out ⁠— but that is exactly what we now face. Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we’ve got the last 20 years — nowhere.”

The Committee described it as “wholly unacceptable,” due to the high level of leakage that persists across the whole country. Around 3 billion litres have been lost every day over the last decade due to complacency, inaction and lack of investment, despite Defra’s appeal to the water industry in 2016 to make tackling leakage a much higher priority.

The report notes Defra has “belatedly set annual targets for water companies and longer-term targets” to reduce leakage by a third by 2030 and by half by 2050, and welcomes Ofwat’s assurances that companies face substantial penalties if they do not meet their targets over the next five years. But the Committee says it is unconvinced by Ofwat’s hope that water companies will “surprise themselves” at what they can achieve, and calls on the Government and Ofwat to be more proactive in ensuring companies meet leakage targets.

Demand for water is about 14 billion litres per day in England and Wales. Due to rising demand and a falling supply of water, the Environment Agency now estimates that England will need an extra 3.6 billion litres per day by 2050 to avoid shortages. Water companies have a statutory requirement to set out every five years how they intend to balance supply and demand over the next 25 years through their water resource management plans.

Speaking to the house of Commons, Hillier added: “Continued inaction by the water industry means we continue to lose one fifth of our daily supply to leaks. Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act. We look now to the Department to step up and make up for lost time before it’s too late.”