MINISTERS are holding talks to prepare for water shortages next year after warning of “serious” problems if the UK experiences a dry winter and spring.
Environment Minister Richard Benyon revealed the talks as the Government issued a stark warning of future water shortages, lasting environmental damage and rivers running dry unless more is done to conserve supplies.
A study by the Environment Agency warns that short droughts of up to 18 months are likely to become more frequent over the coming years and problems will be faced across the country, not only in the south where shortages have been most severe in recent years.
Consumers have been urged to install water butts and dual flush toilets, let grass grow longer in summer, use water-friendly plants in gardens and wash fruit and vegetables in a bowl rather than under the tap to cut consumption.
Launching a White Paper setting out the Government’s approach to water management, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “Making sure we’ve got enough water for everyone is going to be one of the major challenges this country will have to deal with in the years ahead.”
Last year, Ministers called drought summits as crops were destroyed sending food prices soaring after one of the driest springs on record. Although there was significant snow in the winter, 10in of snow is only equivalent to one inch of rain.
Mr Benyon revealed that talks are already under way to co-ordinate a response if the country faces another dry spell.
He said: “We’re working with other companies and other agencies to look at the potential of the problems that could be caused if we have another dry winter followed by a dry spring.
“That would be serious and we’re extremely busy in making sure that every area which has responsibility for these matters is involved in these conversations.”
Government plans include allowing businesses and public sector organisations to switch suppliers, opening up the market to new companies and reforming the system for abstracting water from rivers.
Water companies will also be allowed to offer lower social tariffs for people struggling to pay bills and seek to tackle bad debt which adds £15 to bills.
Mr Benyon also said he wanted to see more meters installed, although a spokesman for the department later stressed that the Government was not seeking to impose them on every household. Water bills are expected to rise by 14 per cent over the next 20 years.
Yorkshire Water welcomed many of the measures but said the Government had missed a big opportunity by not giving water companies a greater role in managing surface water at a time when spending cuts are limiting flood defence schemes.
Labour said a “more robust” approach was needed to keep bills affordable.