The case for water metering in Britain


Justin Taberham,
Director of Policy,
By Justin Taberham, Director of Policy, Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management

Do you leave all the lights on in your house when you go out? Do you leave your central heating on 24 hours a day all year round? I would hope the answer to these questions is ‘no’. The main reason for this is obvious – you are being charged at an increasing rate for your energy supplies and you don’t want to waste money. But in the UK, water has traditionally been regarded as a free resource and not one with an inherent value of its own. For around 60% of houses in England and Wales1, there is no water meter in place so you are charged depending on the size of your house rather than by the amount of water you use. There is little financial incentive to improve water efficiency and, at present, efforts tend to focus on awareness and education measures to change householder behavior, but this effort alone is not enough to reduce water usage and water wastage.

Water is a necessity for life; it is our most basic need. The role it plays in energy supply, infrastructure, economic growth, food, health and culture makes it a central concern for our national policies. In the UK our water resources are already under pressure, with some 25 million people living in areas where there is less water available per person than in Spain or Morocco.2 Yet how many people are aware of this? To say that we take water for granted in the UK is an understatement.

There is a growing occurrence and evidence of adverse environmental impacts from over-licensed abstraction resulting in low flow rivers, dehydrated wetlands and damage to the habitats of in-situ flora and fauna. These impacts may be exacerbated by droughts and the effects of climate change. The Government, regulators and many major abstractors (including water companies) are committed to restoring the most affected aquatic environments and aim where possible to minimize the environmental impact of water abstraction. A key requirement for minimizing the actual or potential environmental impact of over-abstraction is to ensure that water is used efficiently and not wasted, and wherever possible, returned to the environment in the right place and with the right quality, after it has been used.

Over the past two years, Waterwise has been running a program called ‘Tap into Savings,’ which is aimed at helping residents of some 4,500 social homes (and their neighbors) save water, energy and money. During 2010 and 2011, projects were delivered in Merstham and Redhill (Surrey), Coventry (West Midlands) and the Braintree District (Essex), providing free water and energy efficiency devices as well as advice. In addition, over 180 individuals participated in EcoTeams, which were small groups of local residents working together to take action in their homes on water, waste and energy. As the first water efficiency program to build in energy efficiency and recycling, and to place an equal emphasis on installing efficiency devices and influencing pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, the initiative has delivered average water savings of 40 litres per day per home. Overall, the program has delivered annual savings of almost 60 megalitres of water and close to 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents.

Although climate change is likely to lead to more intense rainfall events and increase the risk of flooding, projections also suggest it will reduce the amount of water available in rivers in England and Wales by 10-15% by 2050, on an annual basis, and by up to as much as 80% during summer months.3 Groundwater resources may also suffer. This, along with the ongoing and potential increase in the population of England and Wales, will put greater pressure on our limited water supplies and our water environment.

Metering with appropriate tariff structures – such as the rising block tariff (wherein the unit charge for progressively higher volumes of water taken by customers rises), or a seasonally-varying or aridity-indexed tariff (wherein water costs more per unit when it is less plentiful) – is a major incentive to water efficiency looking to the future. Basic usage should be charged at a low cost with the unit cost escalating rapidly thereafter, this would enable affordability and ensure that wasteful users foot the environmental bill for their usage.

Continued growth in water use will have an increasing environmental impact which may be exacerbated by climate change, lifestyle change, population growth and housing development. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management believes that water must be used more efficiently to mitigate this risk. In addition, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will mean that amongst other things, reductions in water use will be required to deliver reduced carbon emissions from the water industry.

1. Ofwat. 2011. Exploring the costs and benefits of faster, more systematic water metering in England and Wales. UK.
2. Environment Agency, in Directgov. 2009. Call for “near universal” water metering. UK.
3. Environment Agency. 2008. Water resources in England and Wales – current state and future pressures. UK.

This essay was originally published in the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum report Sustainable Solutions: Raising the Water Mark.