On the hottest night on record, I ran out of water: a call for stronger action on adaptation

The neighbourhood WhatsApp group started pinging around 7pm – “do you have water?”, “Our water is off, is it the same for everybody?”. A quick check of the taps and social media showed that nearly the whole town was without water. On the hottest night ever recorded in the UK, we were in for an uncomfortable night.

The water company issued an alert that the extremely hot weather had led to unprecedented demand, causing low pressure and they were unable to pump water from their site. Water storage needed to recover overnight to allow the site to be restarted the following morning. Demand for water was outstripping the water company’s ability to supply it.

We had run out of water.

The Environment Agency has declared most of the south-east of England as “seriously water stressed”, so it’s not surprising that when the Met Office issued their first ever red warning for extreme heat in the UK that water supplies in the area struggled to keep up with demand.

Water supplies, particularly in the south-east, come from underground aquifers which rely on sufficient rainfall throughout the year to meet demand during the drier summer months. This year’s spring has been very dry with less rainfall than many years – water supply issues are not just down to the current heatwave. Water companies have every reason to encourage customers to use water wisely particularly at the moment.

It’s not just the water sector feeling the heat – there has been widespread disruption on the rail network, as well as school closures and increased pressure on health care providers. But this is indicative of our future reality.

Climate projections forecast that the kind of extreme temperatures we have experienced this week will be more common as our summers become hotter and drier. We will have to adapt. Adaptation is no longer about planning for a future climate risk, the impacts of climate change are being felt now, and government must step up its game.

In December 2021, the government concluded the third round of the Adaptation Reporting Power (ARP), a process where Defra invites infrastructure providers and public bodies to report on their preparedness for climate change risks, such as extreme heat.

The Climate Change Committee, the government’s climate advisers, published an assessment in July, and concluded that there are important gaps in the coverage of the ARP. Around 20% of organisations invited to report did not do so, including five water companies. Participation is still voluntary, which is unacceptable considering the risks facing infrastructure operators. The next reporting cycle should be mandatory to improve participation and drive action on adaptation.

These gaps in ARP coverage, as the CCC point out, also prevent other sectors, organisations and government from gaining an understanding of the risks that result from infrastructure interdependencies, which could lead to cascading failures. For example, the consequences of our faltering water supply were compounded by the pre-existing risk from the extreme heat.

Next summer, Defra is due to publish the third National Adaptation Programme (NAP). Previous iterations have been ineffective to say the least. The next NAP must be focused on prioritising action in high-risk areas to deliver meaningful adaptation, engaging across government departments.

There is still insufficient awareness of the risks facing infrastructure, business and communities, and it is often only once the impacts of climate change are being felt – usually in the form of extreme weather – that the public become engaged and understand the need for investment.

Our water supply is now restored and temperatures are forecast to drop, but it was grim reminder that the UK is not prepared for the impacts of our changing climate. We must not lose sight of the importance of adaptation in the focus to achieve net zero.

You can read CIWEM’s policy position statement on climate adaptation here.

Heather Gardner

Senior Policy Adviser, CIWEM

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