UK hosepipe bans: dire leakage data undercut moral authority of utilities

The skimmia is scorched, the petunias are parched and the dahlias are dehydrated. But just when drought-stricken gardens need watering most, some UK water companies are banning hosepipes.

Many gardeners are apoplectic. The message from Middle England is clear. You may not have to prise our watering guns from our cold, dead fingers. But you can expect us to write stiff letters to our MPs.

Even so, six English water companies and one Welsh utility have imposed hosepipe bans or are expected do so. Proponents claim behavioural benefits on top of demand reductions of about a tenth. Customers use water more sparingly in the home as well as the garden, supposedly.

The difficulty is that water utilities provide plenty of unintentional nudges the other way.

One issue is the frequency with which they dump untreated wastewater into rivers, usually during storms to stop water backing up in drains.

A poor record on leakage makes hosepipe bans even harder to stomach. Water companies do not make it easy to work out how much they waste. Delving into filings, Lex calculates leakage equivalent to 25-30 per cent of the total consumed in 2020-2021.

Utilities prefer – but usually do not state – leakage expressed as a percentage of water pumped. This is harder to calculate. But rough figures suggest 20 per cent was typical last year. German and Danish utilities leak less than 10 per cent of water supplied. Historically, the UK has been mid-table for leakage in Europe.

An industry that operates a series of local monopolies often appears to prioritise investors over customers.

Regulator Ofwat, whose relationship with the industry seems collegial, recently hailed modest leakage reductions. But a 2018 report from the National Infrastructure Commission said progress cutting leaks in the nineties and noughties had “largely stalled”.

The commission estimated that about 3bn litres of water are lost to leakage daily. “It is a colossal amount of water,” says Martin Baxter, of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.

The commission wisely judged that utilities need ed to plug leaks even as consumers used less water. By saving 4bn litres a day, England would be able to weather the worsening droughts brought by climate change.

Instead of fighting over hosepipes, utilities and households have a common duty to manage water resources better.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of hosepipe bans in the comments section below.

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