POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Reform of Freshwater Abstraction

Published Friday, January 20, 2017

In some parts of the UK, high levels of water abstraction are reducing the quantity and quality of surface water (rivers, lakes) and groundwater (water accumulated in spaces in soil and rocks). This POSTnote sets out the challenge of balancing competing requirements for freshwater, and summarises proposed reforms to the abstraction system in England and Wales and their implications

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Water is abstracted (withdrawn) from either freshwater (surface water and groundwater) or tidal water for a range of uses. While water issues exist many parts of the UK, this POSTnote focuses on proposed abstraction reforms in England and Wales. Total freshwater abstraction has declined by 15% since 2000, mainly because of a decline in water usage for electricity generation. However, demand is expected to rise by 9% over the next 30 years, largely because of forecast population growth of 6.6-16 million in England and Wales in areas already classified as 'water stressed'. In addition, even currently water-rich areas such as the west of the UK are likely to experience supply-demand deficits by 2050 because of climate change.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Freshwater resources in the UK will be affected by climate change and rising demand due to population growth.
  • The existing water abstraction (withdrawal) system is too inflexible to both protect freshwater environments and to meet future business and public water supply needs.
  • Proposed reforms to the abstraction system include measures to better link abstraction to water availability and to introduce quicker and easier trading of abstraction permits.
  • A ‘twin-track’ approach of managing both water supply and demand may help to achieve water supply resilience.
  • Water resource decision-making could benefit from increased stakeholder collaboration and better integration with land management.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Mike Acreman, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology*

  • Iain Brown, York University/SEI*

  • Christina Cook, University of British Columbia*

  • Rob Cunningham, RSPB*

  • Lord Deben, Climate Change Committee

  • Gareth Edwards, University of East Anglia*

  • Dustin Garrick, University of Oxford*

  • Helen Gavin, Atkins*

  • Jim Hall, University of Oxford*

  • Paul Hammett, NFU*

  • Peter Hetherington, Ofwat*

  • Doug Hunt, Atkins

  • Peter Huxtable, British Aggregates

  • Daniel Johns, CCC Adaptation Sub-Committee*

  • Henry Leveson-Gower, Defra*

  • Sarah Mukherjee, Water UK

  • Rose O’Neill, WWF*

  • Ian Pemberton, Ofwat*

  • Alice Piure, Anglian Water*

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

POSTnotes POST-PN-0546

Authors: Jonathan Wentworth; Jerome Mayaud

Topics: Agriculture and environment, Water, Water industry

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.