Combined with climate change and food security, water security is one of the biggest challenges of this century. Following on from the April 2010 report Global Water Security – an engineering perspective, a series of events were hosted by Engineering the Future last autumn. These events addressed challenges and identified potential solutions for securing the UK’s fresh water supply, ultimately focusing on local water recycling, water transfer, behaviour change and demand management.

The scale of the challenge is evident from comments made at the three discussions by the eminent engineers chairing the events:

Dr Jean Venables CBE FREng: “One thing is clear, the problem of water security – including flooding and droughts – is not going to go away and we must look across the whole water cycle, from abstraction and treatment to use and sewerage, to help address the infrastructure and attitude changes which are needed.”

Michael Norton MBE FICE: “Our nation needs to take a radical and refreshed view of its total water needs across drinking, agriculture and industry against its current total renewable water resources. Water recycling is going to be one of the ways in which we resolve that.”

Professor Roger Falconer FREng: “Large scale transfers are an inherent part of our water resource management systems today and there is every possibility that they might provide an opportunity for the future.”

With the release of the Water for Life White Paper, the government has reiterated its commitment to protecting the environment and water as a resource along with reducing burdens on consumers and industry. The Engineering the Future alliance encourages government to continue its regular dialogue with engineers when consulting on and implementing proposed changes to water regulation.

Key points from the report

Society and behaviour

- Future droughts are expected to be a regular occurrence in the south east of England, yet there is a popular perception that there is a surplus of available water because it rains frequently in the UK.

- There is a need for a ‘burning platform’ such as a severe drought before UK public attitudes towards household water use will change.

- Average water bills are likely to rise significantly in order to represent the true cost of what is actually used.

Solutions – recycled water and water transfer

- Alternatives considered for supplying the south-east of England with sufficient supplies of water have included local storage, water transfer, more reservoirs, ground water storage and desalination, or a combination of several of these.

- There is an instinctive resistance to consuming recycled water among the general public but water reuse can make a more significant contribution to improving water security.

- The UK is currently spending £82 million per year on irrigation because farmers are reliant on water companies for their water. The demand for water for agriculture in the UK is expected to greatly outstrip supply over the next 20 years.

The Environment Agency has reviewed the carbon footprint of the entire lifecycle of water with regard to desalination, reservoirs, effluent reuse, transfers, metering and water efficiency among others. Water transfers fit in the middle range of these options, neither being the worst in terms of carbon use nor the best.

Notes for editors

  1. EtF’s Engineering the future of water report can be found at:
    www.raeng.org.uk/etfwater (1.40 MB) or
    www.engineeringthefuture.co.uk/government
  2. Engineering the Future (EtF) is a broad alliance of the engineering institutions and bodies which represent the UK's 450,000 professional engineers. We provide independent expert advice and promote understanding of the contribution that engineering makes to the economy, society and to the development and delivery of national policy. The leadership of Engineering the Future is drawn from the following institutions: The Engineering Council; EngineeringUK; The Institution of Chemical Engineers; The Institution of Civil Engineers; The Institution of Engineering and Technology; Institution of Structural Engineers, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers; The Institute of Physics; The Royal Academy of Engineering.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths on behalf of Engineering the Future:
Tel. 020 7766 0623; email: Media