The first RICS Water Conference welcomed guest speakers covering a range of topics on the changing issues and opportunities surrounding the water sector. Perfect timing, in light of the current political interest in the water sector– recently captured in Michael Gove’s latest speech in response to the draft National Policy Statement which included the headline messages of halving leakage by 2050 and calling for considerable investment in the water sector.

One in four global cities faces water stress and we each witnessed Cape Town come close to ‘Day Zero’ earlier this year. Up to five billion people could experience water shortage by 2050 as we face pressures from global population growth, rapid urbanisation and food demand.

The National Infrastructure Commission has recommended a per capita water demand target of 118l/day and it is anticipated that Defra will adopt this target. The average water usage in the UK is currently around 140l/day/per person – with significant variations across geographical regions and customer demographics. Though we remain in a better position than some developed countries (USA – 475l per capita/day and France – 164l per capita/day) wider stakeholders remain conscious we should be bolder and Government should push for ambitious targets.

The global agricultural sector plays a key role in water quality and water supply and a close working relationship between the water and agricultural sectors is essential. The sector is fast becoming a focus with a relatively poor record of water pollution and hesitance to innovate and improve.

The need for infrastructure to support essential water management continues and we are only just starting to see the benefit of an integrated approach, recognising that land and agriculture forms the basis of any solution. Land managers are focusing on conservative land and soil management which increases water storage, improves water quality and reduces water run-off and flooding; as well as provide additional protection to their soil. Investment to enhance our natural assets, including catchment management and natural flood management, is increasing but we have only just scratched the surface. We see the biggest risk to this sustainable and collaborative approach is the nervousness surrounding deferred benefit (in essence an ‘intangible value’) of investment.

The 2018 UK drought prompted Defra, the Environment Agency, the Drinking Water Inspectorate and Ofwat to issue a joint statement on water resilience. This advises that the UK water needs must be met in a safe, resilient and efficient way, whilst protecting the environment. The letter sets out a wholesale change in water resource management, advocating collaboration and co-ordination which transcends company boundaries whilst also setting ambitious targets in areas such as leakage and investment.

It is interesting to witness the early stages in the evolution of a common goal which seeks to unify key players in the UK water sector. Over the next 25 years we envisage far greater collaboration between water companies, Defra, the Environment Agency, local councils and importantly land managers. Furthermore, we expect to see considerable investment within the water sector; leakage reduction and customer education will only go so far. Ambitious catchment management projects, new reservoirs and a national water transfer network must be considered if the water sector is to keep pace with population growth, climate change and expectations of sustainable investment.