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UK Rivers Network: Position Statement

Abingdon Reservoir ("Upper Thames Major Resource Development")

Last updated: September 16, 2006.

The UK Rivers Network has reviewed Thames Water's outline plans for a major new reservoir near Abingdon in Oxfordshire (mooted in various forms for over 30 years). We will object to the current plans if they are formally submitted and oppose them at public inquiry, for the following reasons:

1. The plans are based on an unsustainable increase in water demand and energy

Thames describes current views on water supply policy:

"In line with Government thinking and the public's views on moving towards a more sustainable future, we are trying to encourage customers to use less water at the same time as we are reducing the amount of water that we lose through leakage from our pipes, particularly our old Victorian water mains in London. If, despite these measures, we still need to draw on new sources of water, then we will do this whilst minimising impact on people and the environment wherever possible." [1]

Thames claims "a reservoir is viewed as a sustainable long-term solution", simply because it involves using less energy than other methods of water supply, such as importing from abroad [2]. Yet the proposal for the new reservoir is based on a straight-line extrapolation of the current graph of water demand. In other words, it assumes water consumption for London will be approximately a quarter higher in 2050 than in 2004/5, with consumption in Swindon and Oxfordshire approximately a third higher. It's not simply a matter of the extra 25-33% water used, but also the energy needed to recycle that water each time it passes through the system, and all the extra energy people will use when they consume the extra water. A 25-33% increase in water consumption is inherently unsustainable.

Thames argues that: "We need to make sure that we can provide enough water for our customers now and in the future. This is one of our primary statutory duties as a water company." [3] Since the Water Act of 2003, there have also been statutory duties on water regulators—and therefore on the water companies too—to encourage the achievement of sustainable development (sections 35 and 39) and water conservation (section 81) [4].

The current plan has been published in advance of the Ofwat (the Water Services Regulatory Authority) position paper on sustainable development, expected in Autumn 2006. We can't yet know if what Thames is proposing is consistent with what Ofwat considers to be "sustainable".

2. The water demand implications of new South East housing have not been accurately assessed

Thames argues that much of the demand for water will be driven by new housing developments in the South East—yet these developments are themselves speculative and intensely controversial. In recent years, SERPLAN, the regional planning body, has repeatedly challenged government plans to impose high numbers of new homes in the South East and the county councils have often been even more strident in their opposition [5]. Against this background, the exact number of homes that may be built, the overall environmental impact, and the extra demand for water is highly uncertain, though it is expected to be considerable [6].

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee drew attention to this issue in Summer 2006 in its report on Water Management. The Committee pointed out muddled government thinking on the issue, where ministers claimed increases in water demand might be minimal, even though all the evidence suggested the contrary. The day the report was published, The Guardian quoted Housing Minister Yvette Cooper, who claimed that an increase in households does not necessarily translate into an increase in demand for water:

"Anglian Water has seen a 20% increase in the number of households since 1990 but no need to increase water supply due to conservation measures. That is why we are introducing tougher water efficiency standards for housing and are ensuring water companies and planners work together when deciding where new developments should take place." [7]
In the Lords Committee report, Ms Cooper was quoted making a similar point:
Yvette Cooper referred us to a study that had been published as part of the Government s response to the Barker Review. She said, the interesting conclusion that it came to was that actually a significant increase in housing growth had a very, very limited impact on water demand, and the reason for that was that one of the greatest drivers is people rather than actual buildings. [8]
The Committee was sceptical of such statements:
Whilst we welcome the Government's belated attempts to consider the likely impact of increased housing growth upon water use, we are completely unconvinced by the figures produced. Not only is the methodology flawed, but the findings are produced in such a way that even the Minister with responsibility for water issues misinterpreted them. The Government must be more transparent about the fact that their housing growth plans will have a very significant impact on water use in south east England, and focus on ensuring that the necessary preparations are made. [9]

There remain huge uncertainties in both the number of homes that might be built and the extra water that might be needed. Given this, it might seem prudent to construct large new sources of water supply—but the case for them remains unproven. Even ministers seem to concede that it is uncertain how much of the "new water" could be obtained by managing demand rather than increasing supply.

3. Detailed plans for reducing demand have not been outlined

Acccording to Thames, demand management must take priority over increased supply:

"More recent Government guidance has suggested that rather than just developing more and more new sources water companies must adopt a twin track approach, with priority being given to reducing demand and leakage before any new water supply schemes are brought in. This means that we do not necessarily have to select the cheapest way of balancing supply and demand for water as the preferred solution, and prompts debate about whether we want a cheap water supply or more sustainable water management, or whether we can manage to do both." [10]

Where, then, is the bold and imaginative plan for reducing demand and leakage in the Thames Region that should (according to Thames) take priority over the development of new water supply schemes? There should be a set of documents about demand management that are at least as detailed and comprehensive as the outline proposals for the new Abingdon reservoir. Where are they?

During summer 2006, Thames proved that its customers could dramatically cut water use by making "small changes" to their daily routines. Following appeals to save water, Thames saw demand drop by 176 million litres a day in June, or an average reduction of 5.3% [11]. These savings were 20% greater than the amount of water Thames estimates it could supply with a 75 million cubic meter reservoir at Abingdon (147 million liters per day). [12]

"Thames Water's Duncan McCombie said: "We want to say a big thank-you to all our customers who have been saving water during the drought, but with July temperatures soaring we do very much need them to keep up the good work. We know June's fall in demand can't simply be due to the hosepipe and sprinkler restrictions, because only four out of every 10 of our customers own a hosepipe. It just goes to show that if everyone makes small changes to their daily routines, such as only switching the washing machine or dishwasher on when they are full, it can help make a big difference". [11]

Meanwhile, Thames courted national controversy when the size of its water leakage rate was revealed in the media. The Daily Mail suggested "Thames Water's owners are laughing like drains":

Britain's most wasteful water firm was accused of leaking "obscene" amounts today as it reported a huge leap in profits. Thames Water, which wastes the equivalent of 350 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day, raked in £346.5million, up 31.5 per cent. It came on the back of a 21 per cent rise in customers' bills and the third successive failure to meet targets for cutting leakage. [13]
According to Ofwat's figures, Thames Water's daily leakage rate (895 million liters per day) is five times greater than the daily savings Londoners made and six times greater than the amount of water that the proposed (75 million cubic meter) Abingdon reservoir could supply each day [14].

In June 2006, London Mayor Ken Livingstone launched a major campaign to conserve water, during which it was revealed that "he would be talking to the Government to change water industry regulations to allow compulsory water metering, a permanent drought order and annual hosepipe bans." [15]

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) identifies Thames Water as spending only five pence per customer per year to help households reduce the amount of water they use. Thames is not alone: the IPPR argues that water companies have absolutely no incentive to improve water efficiency:
Water companies have strict targets to reduce leaks but they do not have similar incentives to improve water efficiency in homes. ippr's report recommends that the Government introduce a Water Efficiency Commitment—similar to the Energy Efficiency Commitment which sets a legal obligation on energy suppliers to improve household energy efficiency. ippr argues that the Government should set national minimum water efficiency targets with enhanced targets for areas more prone to water shortages. ippr says that the regulator, Ofwat, would be responsible for ensuring the companies met their targets.[16]

If real efforts are made to manage demand and tackle leakage, projections of water use might look very different in future, entirely changing the economic case for the proposed new reservoir. It makes sense for Thames Water to try demand management first.

4. The case for a new reservoir has not been made

Thames Water's profit is obviously related to the amount of water it supplies. Our suspicion is that Thames views the possibility of greater demand for water as a chance to make even more profit out of even more customers. The proposal for a new reservoir near Abingdon is primarily a way for Thames to make more money. It is unsustainable, undesirable, and unnecessary.

The Environment Agency has already voiced objections. Back in April 2000, its then director of water management, Geoff Mance, told the Oxford Times:

"The agency is not totally averse to new reservoirs as long as all available options have been properly explored. But I have to say that at the moment the company's leakage record is not good. It still loses 28 per cent of the water it puts into supply. A reservoir such as the one suggested at Abingdon would only increase supplies by five to ten per cent. We feel that Thames Water is trying to avoid the treadmill of reducing leakage simply because it is hard work." [17]


[1] Thames Water, Stage 1 Needs and Alternatives Report, Summary and Overview, paragraph 1.2.
Thames Water

[2] Ibid. paragraph 1.31.

[3] Ibid. paragraph 1.5.

[4] Water Act, 2003. Sections 35 and 39 refer to sustainable development obligations; section 81 refers to water conservation obligations.

[5] Showdown looms over new houses, BBC News, 12 June 2000.
BBC News

[6] Friends of the Earth press release June 6, 2006
Friends of the Earth

[7] Departments "failed to consider water shortages", The Guardian, June 6, 2006.
The Guardian

[8] House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 8th Report of Session 2005-06, Water Management, section 4.40
House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

[9] Ibid section 4.31

[10] Thames Water, Stage 1 Needs and Alternatives Report, Summary and Overview, paragraph 1.11.

[11] People thanked for saving water. BBC News, July 18, 2006.
BBC News

[12] Thames Water, Stage 1 Needs and Alternatives Report, Full report, section 4.9, table 4.2, p57.

[13] Why Thames Water's owners are laughing like drains. Daily Mail, June 22, 2006.
Daily Mail

[14] Leakage slightly down - companies warned against complacency. Ofwat press release, July 21, 2006.

[15] Mayor launches major water conservation campaign for London. Greater London Authority press release, June 27, 2006.
Greater London Authority

[16] Water companies save just a mug of water per customer. Institute for Public Policy Research press release and report, September 17, 2006.
Institute for Public Policy Research

[17] Abingdon Reservoir plan surfaces again. Oxford Times, April 27, 2000.
Oxford Times

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