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Three challenges for the water industry

In a speech by Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency at the Water Industry Forum, Birmingham, 8 May 2019 he chose to raise three challenges the water sector faces. While climate change will have been expected, the operational and political challenges perhaps less so. 

Given the current levels of scrutiny water companies face he highlighted the importance of delivering more, in particular noting a lack of progress shown relating to serious pollution incidents. Sir James Bevan noted companies have a target to trend to zero serious pollution incidents by 2020 but performance has ‘plateaued’ in the 50-60 range.

The EA Chief Executive set out his thoughts on what is needed from water companies to tackle the issues that concern the public the most, and which are feeding the criticisms of the politicians and the media as below:

- “Pollution. If companies cannot operate without damaging the environment they will rightly lose their social licence to operate. Getting their company to zero pollution incidents should be as important to CEOs as any other performance measure.

- Leaks. Nothing annoys water customers more than leaks, especially when we all know water is scarce. Companies all have leakage reduction targets, some more ambitious than others. All the leakage targets should be ambitious.

- Drought. Failure to provide the water the public want would be the ultimate indictment of the sector. So the water companies need to work actively with the EA over the next few months to manage down the risks of hosepipe bans or other water restrictions this summer. I’m inviting all the main water companies’ CEOs to join me next month at the National Drought Group which I chair to ensure we are all in the best possible place as we go into the summer.

- Long term climate resilience: as I’ve said, long term water security requires reducing demand, enhancing supply, and significant investment in infrastructure. Some of the companies are doing this. But not all are, or not to sufficient degree or with sufficient pace. The companies all need to own and lead this process. Last but not least, if the water industry wants to retain the current economic model, then it needs to show that private companies can act in the public interest. The commitment to do just that which the water sector announced last month deserves recognition. Among other things, it commits the water industry to make bills affordable for all poor households, to triple the rate of leakage reduction by 2030, and to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. More of that please.”


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