There is a “serious risk” some parts of England will run out of water within 20 years, a committee of MPs has warned.
More than three billion litres, a fifth of the volume that is currently used, is being lost to leaks each day, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
It says the bodies responsible for the country’s water supply – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Ofwat and the Environment Agency – have “taken their eye off the ball” and must take urgent action to maintain a reliable supply.
The committee says “no progress” has been made in reducing leaks over the past 20 years, and that the government has failed to be clear with firms about how they should balance cutting customer bills with improving infrastructure.
It urges regulator Ofwat to start publishing league tables of water companies’ performance.
“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,” said Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee.
“Continued inaction by the water industry means we continue to lose one fifth of our daily supply to leaks.
“Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we have got the last 20 years: nowhere.
“Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act: we look now to the department to step up, make up for lost time and see we get action before it’s too late.”
The committee said more than 4.5 billion litres a day were being lost to leaks in the early 1990s, falling to around three billion at the turn of the century – but that a “decade of complacency and inaction” had followed.
Leaks remain a huge problem, the committee said, despite Defra urging water companies in 2016 to do more.
Among other PAC recommendations is that more should be done to encourage consumers to save water, with the current approach said to be uncoordinated.
It calls on Defra to urgently come up with a new plan, backed by adequate funding.
“Awareness of the need for water efficiency is very low compared to that of saving energy,” says the committee.
“There is no evidence of the impact on consumer awareness or behaviour of what water companies are doing.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We absolutely recognise the need to safeguard our water supplies for future generations, which is why our National Framework for Water Resources sets out a bold vision for bringing together consumers, businesses and industry to sustainably protect our water supplies.
“We are already taking a tougher approach to poor performance and wastage within the water industry, while also finding ways to increase supply.
“But everyone has a part to play, and we urge people to be mindful of their usage and look at practical ways to save this precious resource in their daily lives.”
An Ofwat spokesperson added: “This is a highly important issue and Ofwat will carefully consider the committee’s report and recommendations.
“This is why we have taken strong action to improve long-term planning, and have set out a £51bn programme over the next five years to make major reductions to leakage, cut pollution by a third, and back new infrastructure.
“We have also unveiled a new innovation fund to help find imaginative ways to tackle some of these complex issues.
“This report also serves as another reminder that water companies must stay focused on reducing leakage and improving water efficiency. We will continue to push ourselves and work with government, regulators, companies and others to make sure we all deliver for customers and the environment.”
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