London 2025: desert capital


Water shortages present a serious threat to London – what are the implications for your company?

“If your company is set to use water in London over the next ten years, then you’re going to face a right mess,” says Tim Jones, a futurologist and co-founder of consultancy Water Strategies.

Why? Because the capital simply doesn’t have enough H2O to meet its inhabitants’ growing needs.

The city’s population is soaring. River levels are plummeting. Droughts are getting longer and more frequent. And London’s water company is struggling to cope.

The idea that it’s always raining here is one of the world’s biggest myths about the city.

“You could very quickly move from a hose-pipe ban to an emergency situation in which we have to prioritize individual customers’ needs over either environmental damage or the impact on businesses. Human life would come first,” says Richard Aylard, sustainability director at Thames Water.

“At the end of the day we can only supply what falls from the sky.”

If Thames Water really is forced to cut off companies’ water supplies for days or even weeks, the implications for many firms in the capital – particularly those who rely on water or heating, cooling and industrial processes – are deadly serious.

Indeed, some companies are likely to move operations out of London due to the city’s water constraints, predicts Jones.

“If you talk to some of the companies who have set up electronics factories in Wales, they say that plentiful water resources were one of the key attractions,” he says.

Dry town

So why is London facing a water shortage?

The idea that it’s always raining here is one of the world’s biggest myths about the city. Believe it or not, London’s annual rainfall is about the same as Jerusalem.

“Per head of population, London actually has less rainfall than just about anywhere in the world,” says Aylard.

“And even in absolute terms [total rainfall], we get less rain than Rome, Dallas and Istanbul. And we get half as much as Sydney or Florida.”

Climate change is compounding the problem buy causing more arid springs and summers. This spring was the driest in England and Wales since 1893, says the Met Office. 

Heading off disaster

So what is Thames Water doing to protect the capital’s businesses from a water crisis?

Reuse of sewerage effluent is another option. But this means using an energy-guzzling membrane filtering system – not cheap and not green

Reducing water leaks, rolling out water meters and helping businesses and households to use water more efficiently will help to keep the taps running for a while, says Aylard.

“The problem comes from 2025 onwards, according to current projections for business and population growth. So we need to find new water resources,” he adds.

But surely Thames Water has a plan for bringing new water supplies on stream? Well, yes – but not a viable one, thanks to Oxfordshire’s not-in-my-backyard brigade…

Curse of the NIMBYs

Thames Water has three options for keeping London’s taps running, says Aylard:

·        Piping water in from other parts of the UK

·        Building new reservoirs

·        Cleaning and re-using sewerage effluent

The company’s preferred option was to build a big new reservoir near Abingdon, the market town in Oxfordshire.

It was a neat plan.

“You’d take water from the River Thames in winter when there’s lots of it. Then you’d pump it into the reservoir to be used locally as well as in London during the summer,” says Aylard.

“You wouldn’t need to pump the water back to London – it would simply flow down to the Thames before being extracted from existing points.”

Perfect? No, because the NIMBYs near the proposed reservoir site aren’t happy with the idea. So Thames Water has been asked to go back the drawing board.

What now?

Taking water from the River Severn via pipelines and the UK’s canal network is one potential alternative. But pumping water over the Cotswolds would be expensive and the Severn could dry out.

Reuse of sewerage effluent is another option. But this means using an energy-guzzling membrane filtering system – not cheap and not green.

Thames Water also has a shiny new desalination plant that can turn saltwater into something drinkable. But the technology consumes lots of energy – and therefore isn’t a sustainable solution to the capital’s soaring water needs.

Despite these problems, Aylard is confident that Thames Water will find a solution before the taps run dry.

But time is running out.

Plan for water shortages now

So what can your company do to reduce water use and therefore protect itself from a future water crunch?


Here are Waterwise’s top tips for business:

  •       Educate your employees on the importance and practices of water efficiency
  •       Know where your supply pipes run and where the shut off valves are
  •       Check your meters at night or when no water is being used to monitor leakage
  •       Make sure your pipes are protected against cold weather as leakage can increase after a burst due to frost
  •       Use water efficient appliances in canteens or office kitchens
  •       Determine where your wasted water is going and if or how you can recycle it in other areas of your business
  •       Where possible, use a water butt to harvest rainwater for use in your business
  •       Assess water using equipment to make sure there is no over filling, set water usage targets
  •       Install water efficient devices in bathrooms and canteens such as controlled or waterless urinals and automatic or spray taps


Companies can find lots of practical advice on saving water at http://www.waterwise.org.uk/reducing_water_wastage_in_the_uk/house_and_garden/saving_water_in_business.html.

Start by discussing the issue in the boardroom at least once, says Jacob Tompkins, director of Waterwise, a UK NGO that promotes water efficiency.

“Just do a simple audit: look at how much you spend on water; how much water comes in and where from; how much goes out and where to; and what you are using the water for. You don’t need fancy consultants to do this.”

You can call Thames Water and ask for a report on water sources and outlets.

Companies that bother to do a water audit can save tens of thousands of pounds – often simply by indentifying a leaking pipe, broken tap or other glaring fault, says Tompkins.

A water audit might even reveal easy opportunities even bigger cost savings. For instance, Liverpool John Moore’s University recently discovered that it had been paying for all the water used by two local hospital buildings ever since the latter were built.

Tomkins reckons there are companies out there doing the same.

Is yours?

London water facts:

  •      Every Londoner uses 150 litres of water a day – and that’s just for cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing.
  •      If you taking into account “embedded water” (the amount used to create everything we eat, use and buy), every Londoner uses more than 3,400 litres a day.
  •      The southeast of England is the driest part of the UK – and most vulnerable to climate change-related future droughts.