Don't forget the water


Corporate water efficiency measures could be at risk of being forced onto the back burner as many CSR departments increase their focus on cutting energy use and carbon emissions.

That was the warning from the boss of one of the UK's leading water utilities who, last week, argued that, while carbon emissions have rightly come to dominate the corporate agenda, the threat posed by climate change meant that there was still a strong case for investment in improving water efficiency.

"Carbon and energy efficiency has to be a high priority" - said John Cuthbert, managing director of Northumbrian Water. "But there needs to be balance. If everything becomes dominated by the carbon agenda, we could look back in five years time and realise there was a need for a more balanced approach."

Cuthbert observed that, while soaring energy prices had focused many executives' minds on energy efficiency, water costs were often less of a priority. "With business customers, water is very rarely a major part of operational costs. That's not to say they ignore it, but it is not as high a priority as energy efficiency" - he said - adding that, as a result, the onus was on CSR and sustainability departments to drive water conservation measures.

Despite the relatively limited cost case for investment in water saving measures - such as grey water systems and rain harvesting technologies - Cuthbert insisted that there was still a strong long-term business case for such measures. "If you look at all the climate change predictions, they are for wetter winters and dryer summers. Well, the demand profile for water is pretty much the exact opposite of that" - he warned. "We need to develop a way of managing that scenario and that means improving the infrastructure for storing and capturing water and bringing down the demand."

He added that proposed changes to the UK government's planning regime that would give Whitehall the power to fast-track major infrastructure projects through the planning system, should help ensure that reservoir capacity is improved. Some major projects - such as Northumbrian Water's plans to increase the capacity of the Abberton Reservoir in Essex, which are expected to receive a final decision later this summer - can take over ten years to complete - in part, because of onerous planning requirements.

"With big projects we'd align ourselves with the government's view that there needs to be a different approach" - said Cuthbert. "There are projects that have a regional - if not national - significance and there needs to be a way of recognising that. Currently, planning authorities can even be put in a difficult democratic position. For example, Colchester council will make the decision over Abberton, but the reservoir will not actually serve Colchester itself."