University professor says that water could be the ‘oil of Wales’ and sold over the border to England
Water could be considered the “oil of Wales” in the future if plans to transport water to drought-stricken parts of England go ahead, an university professor has said.
Professor Roger Falconer from Cardiff University told Newyddion S4C that England should “pay for the water”, with the revenue being invested back into local communities in Wales.
His comments come after the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission said “work has already begun” to transfer water from Wales to drought-hit areas of England.
Sir John Armitt, speaking on The Briefing Room on Radio 4, said that water companies in England did not want to invest in reservoirs and that they were unpopular with communities that did not want to see their land flooded.
Instead, he said, Severn Trent and Thames Water were in talks to transfer water from Wales to the south of England, starting at Lake Vyurnwy and being transferred through pipes or a canal to the Thames basin.
But Professor Falconer said that with water supplies in England under “severe pressure” Wales could look to increasing the size of its reservoir in the Elan Valley and transferring the extra water captured there through the Wye or Severn rivers and through canals to the upper Thames.
Speaking to S4C News he said it was “a good opportunity in many ways”.
“We would supply directly under drought conditions to the south east of England and I would see this as the oil of Wales for the future in terms of revenue,” he said.
Thames Water have confirmed that they are “consulting” on plans to transfer water from reservoirs owned by United Utilities in Wales. United Utilities said that the plans would not impact on the amount of water available to existing customers.
Speaking on Sunday, the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission John Armitt had said that companies were looking at having “more water in the supply side by building more reservoir capacity, or in addition, providing water transfer scheme so you transport water from where you’ve got a surplus in the country to the areas where you are likely to have a shortage”.
Reservoirs were he said “the most capital intensive thing that you can invest in. So we’ve got the natural reluctance, I guess, of the private companies to lay out shedloads the capital to build new reservoirs, and no great pressure on them, to be frank from the regulator to build new reservoir capacity.”
“And of course, everyone knowing that as soon as you propose a large new reservoir, you are going to run into local resistance from the local population who won’t want to see two or three square miles or potentially maybe four square miles of agricultural land devoted to a new reservoir.”
David Aaronovitch interjected to say: “Or as in the case of Wales back in the day, whole villages.”
Sir John Armitt added: “Well, indeed, and of course one of the biggest in Wales is Lake Vyrnwy, which would be the potential source in a water transfer scheme.
“Essentially, you are transferring water from one river basin to another so you’d be transferring it from Wales. And work has already started on this between Severn Trent and Thames Water.
“So Severn Trent control lake Verwey in mid Wales. And Thames [Water] control the Thames basin, and the plan that they have is to shift water.
“And it could be as much as three to 500 million litres a day between those two catchment areas when you do it through a series of pipework or you could do it through the canal system.”
‘Inter-regional water transfers’
John Armitt’s comments come after GMB London and senior Conservatives suggested pumping the water from Lake Vyrnwy in Powys to the south-east of England to help deal with the drought there.
According to the Daily Mail earlier this week, senior Conservatives are now pushing the idea again after parts of England were declared to be officially in drought.
“Senior Tories yesterday said the current droughts meant it was time to review the plan,” Brendan Carlin, the newspaper’s political reporter said.
They quoted a spokesman for the environment department Defra who said that “inter-regional water transfers can play an important role in moving water from areas of the country with plentiful supplies to those with high demand”.
The water would be shipped from the south of Scotland as well as the north of Wales as these areas receive significantly more rainfall than parts of England, “to create a giant ‘natural water grid’ across the UK”.
Any such plan would however likely be particularly controversial in Wales where previous projects to supply England with water, particularly the drowning of Capel Celyn and Llawddyn, ignited political opposition.
Independence movement YesCymru have campaigned on the issue, calling for Wales to receive compensation in return for the 243bn litres of water a year extracted.
The GMB London plan would see water pumped from Wales to the Cotswold canals and down the Sapperton Canal Tunnel in Gloucester.
Mark Holland, GMB London Regional Organiser for the water industry, said: “Thames Water should accept the water being offered by United Utilities from Lake Vyrnwy and get it to the Thames via the restoration of the Cotswold canals and Sapperton tunnel.
“This plan was covered in the Thames Water 2019 draft plan for water supply for London in the 21st century but is not included in the current list of things Thames Water plan to do.
“Instead of this very workable plan one of the things Thames Water is planning to rely on is the hope of consumers cutting daily consumption from 145 litres to 125 litres.”
Plaid Cymru responded to plans for a canal earlier this week by saying that Wales must be paid more than a “pittance” for its water.
Plaid Cymru leader in Powys, Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, said that Wales was paid very little for its “valuable” water while CEOs at water companies were paid massive salaries.
“You pay a pittance for what is already taken, merely 3p a tonne or 1,000 litres,” he said. “Yet water industry bosses are paid a fortune with reports that Thames Water bosses were awarded bonuses of £2.4m in 2020 and 2021 despite the company losing up to a quarter of all its water from leaks.
“Likewise build the long awaited new reservoir at Abingdon, a proposal which has been circulating since 2006 and restart the desalination plant to assist matters.
“The Gateway Water Treatment Works in Beckton, east London takes water from the Thames Estuary, treats it and makes drinking water. It was completed in 2010 to be used during dry weather events.
“It has the capacity to deliver up to 100 million litres of water a day – it has been used during dry spells to boost Thames Water’s reservoirs in London – yet has been switched off during the current hot spell!
“This further highlights the need for water to be seen as a valuable resource, a commodity and Wales is fortunate to have it, however, we cannot allow it to be taken and used by large corporations and fritted away whilst our communities get a pittance from it.
“Imagine the benefits to Powys if we merely got 1p a litre for it – the financial problems of our public services locally would be solved.”
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