‘The UK is not a wet country’ was perhaps the most surprising revelation from the latest guest speaker at Maidenhead Rotary Club, Richard Aylard, the Sustainability Director for Thames Water.
“By international standards the UK is quite dry, ” said Richard, going on to explain that as the UK does not have a rainy season, any rain that falls in the summer is effectively lost as it quickly evaporates.
“You never have enough water... until there’s too much. And the thing about droughts is that you never know when they are going to end,” he said,
In a fascinating insight into the story of the water from our taps, Richard explained how the company provides its 15 million customers with 2.6 billion litres of drinking water a day.
He outlined the water cycle, from abstraction from rivers and aquifers to the treatment of wastewater at sewage works, revealing along the way some mind-boggling statistics – the company has 100,000km of sewers with 1.2 million manhole covers.
He set out the future challenges faced by water companies from climate change to population growth, explaining more infrastructure is needed to improve resilience.
For example, the number of people living in the area served by Thames Water is expected to increase by two million by 2040 and a large new reservoir near Abingdon is being planned to help meet the extra demand.
Richard tackled head-on the controversial issues of leaky pipes and the discharge of sewage into rivers. He said leakage was too high but the company aimed to cut losses by 20 percent by 2025 and 50 percent longer term thanks to steps including infrastructure improvements, water meters and acoustic monitors which helped pinpoint leaks.
Turning to why untreated sewage was discharged into rivers, Richard explained the problem was driven by rainfall which increased the amount of water in sewers by up to six times compared to dry days.
When there is more dirty water than can be treated, it is kept in storage tanks and it is when these are full and the sewage would back up into homes that the discharges are made.
He said it was happening too often and sewage works were being expanded with a £1.2bn investment but the problem was made worse by house-building and concreting which caused more surface water to run off into drains.
Richard stressed investment by Thames Water was not declining and explained the company’s owners had not issued a dividend for several years.
“Investment is not going down,” he said.