Time to fix our broken water sector report: Thames21 responds

Last week, the Angling Trust and Salmon & Trout Conservation released a new report called ‘Time to Fix The Broken Water Sector’. In this report, the organisations called on the economic regulator of the water industry OFWAT and the government to address the chronic lack of investment in the UK’s ‘creaking and leaking’ water infrastructure to meet demands of climate change and population growth without damaging the environment.

We are in full support of this report.

Our water infrastructure has been suffering for a long time. As the document mentions, successive governments, and their agencies and regulators, have failed to take water issues seriously preferring instead to pursue cheap bills and to ignore the huge problems that have been mounting up as a result of an ageing and failing infrastructure.

Our rivers are like arteries, but they are under constant risk of being attacked by raw sewage pollution and there is a clear risk that this could increase exponentially as the impacts of population expansion and climate change become locked in.

As the economic regulator, OFWAT is responsible for setting limits on pricing and encouraging adequate investment within the water industry, among other things. It can urge water companies to repair and invest in sewerage systems.

Although there has been some expenditure by water companies, it has not been at the level we need to fix our creaking water infrastructure.

We call on OFWAT to urgently review the level of spending available for water companies to invest in environmental protection. Much more funding is needed to enable our rivers to be less polluted and ultimately enable them to become healthy ecosystems. Most of the present-day sewerage infrastructure in the UK was installed over half a century ago or before. Investment is not keeping pace with its deterioration. 

In addition our water supply is transported through wastefully leaking pipes at a time when the Climate Emergency makes it crucial to use the water to our homes and businesses responsibly.

There is an opportunity to speed up the pace of progress and ensure all water companies are actively involved.

For the River Thames, there is some news of improvement. The Thames Tideway Tunnel project, due for completion in 2023, will divert the most polluting Combined Sewage Overflows away from the river to a new ‘Super Sewer’.  Additional solutions such as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and wetland creation would increase the scheme’s long term sustainability as well as providing multiple environmental and social benefits.

However, this will not help other issues or the rest of the country. It is clear that OFWAT, Defra, water companies need to work together to deliver healthy and resilient rivers. The time to act is now.

This comment piece was first featured in Thames21’s latest newsletter (5th October).