My Lords, each water company has a drought plan to manage short-term water shortages that contains various triggers to be used depending on the severity of the drought. The provision of drought plans became a statutory requirement in October 2005.
Water companies also have 25-year water resource plans that seek to balance supply and anticipated demand. They are voluntary plans but will become a statutory requirement under the provisions of the Water Act 2003.
My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the Minister. Is there not now an acute problem in the south-east of England, not only in the short term because of the limited rainfall of recent months but in the longer term, given particularly the Government's plans to build a large number of new residences in the south-east, which will require more water?
My Lords, there has certainly been a drought in the south-east of England for around 15 months; it continued through the winter. Throughout much of south-east England this summer there may be the worst drought since 1976. About 70 per cent of water supplies in the south come from ground water—as the noble Lord will know—as opposed to rivers and reservoirs, which depend on rainfall to replenish.
With regard to sustainable communities, some extra water resources are planned to meet future demand, including the additional housing to which the noble Lord referred. They are set out in the long-term plans—the water companies' 25-year water resource plans.
My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that droughts occur frequently and will continue to do so. Metering is an important issue on which there has been much publicity recently. It has an important role to play in demand management and helping to increase customer awareness of the amount and cost of the water that they use. We are leading on work for the Water Saving Group, which will take forward action for increasing metering in particular areas and improving understanding and the delivering of metering generally. But not every customer saves money from having a meter, so one has to make a decision on whether it should be compulsory.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that I asked a Question concerning the building of houses in an area where it is known that there is a water shortage? Will he tell me whether houses are continuing to be built, and is it true, as I have heard, that there is already a ban at this time of year on washing one's car with a hose because of shortage of water?
My Lords, there has been a hosepipe ban in some parts of the south-east for some time, and it still exists. With extra housing the water position has been taken into consideration, and in their long-term plans the water companies are dealing with what they know is likely to happen in those areas.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that resource planning is inadequate in the context of climate change? It is an established fact that in many parts of the country, but particularly the south-east, sometimes only 40 per cent of the rain required falls. What has happened to plans for a national water grid to bring water from the north of England down to the south-east? Is it not time for long-term resource planning?
My Lords, we are looking closely at whether there should be a national water grid. A great deal of water is already transferred within company boundaries, and there is some transfer between neighbouring companies, but we should not underrate the problems of a national water grid. Water is of course bulky and heavy and expensive to pump. It would need widespread excavations to build. We would have to be sure that it was a cost-effective solution, and we would also have to consider the environmental benefits. It is not an easy issue.
My Lords, the Minister keeps talking about 25-year resource planning, but we are not actually in control of when it rains. Surely the answer, which the Government are skirting around the whole time, is compulsory metering. They do it for new house builds; why cannot they do it that way?
My Lords, I know that there is strong feeling on both sides of the House about compulsory metering. We have heard it today. I have already given my answer. We encourage metering, but there are issues with it as well.
My Lords, what proportion of water usage in the south-east can be attributed to the irrigation of crops? In view of global warming, what research is being done to encourage farmers to grow crops that are much more tolerant of dry conditions?
My Lords, I cannot give the noble Countess the figure for the south-east that she asked for, but I shall write to her with it.
My Lords, on yesterday's BBC News, there was an item about water shortage that suggested that loos should not be flushed until absolutely necessary. Are there any plans to issue face masks?
My Lords, I was reading that question this morning and noticed that I had no reply last time to the noble Lord's question about his bore hole. I am absolutely delighted to hear the news.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Desalination is an important part of the solution to the problem. Sometimes, it is to be favoured over new reservoirs for environmental reasons and because it is less costly. Desalination plants are almost certainly one of the major ways to deal with the problem.