More than half the region’s water (up to 85% in some places) comes from underground aquifers. These aquifers rely on sufficient winter rainfall to fill them up to meet rising demands for water in spring and summer. But climate change looks set to have a huge impact on rainfall patterns – not just how much rain we receive, but when and where it falls. Winter rainfall can vary from one year to the next, falling way below long-term averages some years, while February 2020 alone was the wettest on record, while other factors such as temperature could also have an impact on supply. That variability can make it harder to plan a long time ahead with any certainty of what the future holds.
Why do we need to plan our water supply?
The number of people living in the South East is on the rise. The region – which includes London – is also the nation’s economic powerhouse. But when it comes to keeping up with increasing water demand, it faces potentially greater pressures and challenges than most other regions. In fact, most of the South East is designated as being in serious water stress by the Environment Agency.
Rising population and economic growth will increase demand…
The South East is home to 19 million people. And with almost as many businesses in the region as the rest of the country put together, it currently makes up 37% of the national economy. Add to this the 28 million annual tourists and total demand can tot up to six billion litres of drinking water a day. Longer term, four million extra people are expected to be living here which is why the South East is expected to account for around 50% of the UK’s future need for public water supplies alone. So even based on conservative estimates, the region will need to find at least an extra 1 billion litres a day to keep up over the next 30 years – and possibly even more in the future.
And the water supply is under increased strain…
The region typically experiences more droughts than any other region in the UK. And on a hot day, an extra billion litres (or 20% more) can be supplied around the South East. Despite this, the occasional hosepipe ban is still needed when rainfall is significantly down – not least to protect the natural environment. And without planning, there is a risk that even more severe restrictions on business and households might have to be enforced in the future. And the National Infrastructure Commission estimates the economic cost alone of imposing severe restrictions at around £1.3 billion per day to the economy, with further impacts to wider society and the environment.
Meeting the increasing demand for water while maintaining a sustainable, vibrant and resilient environment is a tough balance. Over a quarter of the South East is a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty while National Parks make up 8% of the region. It is also home to eight key rivers which support dozens more smaller tributaries and streams, such as rare and iconic chalk streams. Protection of these habitats is of the utmost importance to the wildlife that uses it as their home and for ensuring we have sufficient water to meet future demand.