I am writing to personally apologise for the drinking water supply shortages in Kent and Sussex, and to provide an update on the situation. In this letter, I will explain why this situation has arisen, how we are working to overcome it and to offer reassurance to our customers across the region.
South East Water exists to provide the public drinking water service. Other companies will provide sewerage services to you. On 16 June, due to record levels of demand for drinking water over consecutive days, we announced that we would be introducing a Temporary Use Ban – more commonly known as a ‘hosepipe ban’ – to protect the water supply for all our customers in Kent and Sussex.
In exceptionally dry periods and when dealing with surges in usage, the most effective short-term strategy for ensuring supply is rapidly reducing demand. Restrictions put the brakes on non-essential usage, such as watering gardens with hosepipes, which use huge quantities of treated water. This is to ensure that water is only used for essential purposes, such as drinking, cooking and washing.
Despite our best efforts, the severe conditions in the run up to 16 June meant that some customers were affected by low pressure or no water. We are sincerely sorry to those affected and want to reassure impacted customers that they will be compensated in line with our Guaranteed Standards of Service (we are in the process of writing directly to those affected).
We are often asked: how we got to this point? The short answer is that there have been significant recent changes to supply and demand, driven by three key factors:
- Changing consumption habits: Over the past three years the way in which drinking water is being used across the South East has changed considerably. The rise of working from home has increased drinking water demand in commuter towns by around 20 per cent over a very short period, testing our existing infrastructure.
- Low rainfall: The severe lack of rainfall since April has increased demand for treated drinking water. Water butts are empty, lawns are drying out and farms have used their stored water supplies. Our reservoir and aquifer stocks of raw water, essential to our water supply but not ready to be used, are in a good position. However, demand for treated mains water, which takes time to process and deliver was greater than we could meet. Despite every available water treatment works and supply source operating 24/7 at maximum output, we could not treat water quickly enough to meet the pace of demand and therefore had to act.
- Hot weather: Hot days often result in spikes in demand as customers stay hydrated, cool off or tend to their gardens. Over the past week we have needed to find water to supply the equivalent of an additional four towns the size of Maidstone or Eastbourne, every day.
What are we doing about this? To keep the taps flowing, we are currently prioritising projects across our system to increase the amount of water that we can supply, whilst implementing solutions at points in our network where water supply can be a challenge.
We are confident, with our customers’ help, that we can improve the reliability of the water supply in the short to medium-term. We are also developing our 2025-2030 plan, required by all water companies by our regulator, Ofwat. This will be critical in permanently addressing the issues we are currently seeing due to the changing conditions outlined above. To achieve this, we are proposing several initiatives to increase capacity, connectivity and resilience, including:
- Building new reservoirs: If approved by the regulator, work on a new reservoir at Broad Oak near Canterbury will shortly commence, which should increase overall capacity in the long-term.
- Increasing connectivity: We are making plans to improve connectivity between water supplies in sometimes hard-to-reach areas – diversifying supply and increasing resilience in tough conditions.
- Increasing storage tanks: We are planning to increase localised drinking water storage tanks to bolster our network.
- Addressing leaks: With more extreme weather – in winter as well as summer – we are investing nearly £40 million a year in resources to address leakage across our network as pipes come under increasing strain from extreme fluctuations in temperature.
We deeply regret falling short of our high standards and want to assure you that we are doing everything that we can to plan and build for the future – ensuring a reliable and uninterrupted water supply.
We have set up a feedback form for you to send us details of any concerns you have, which can be accessed here. If you have any further questions, we encourage you review our FAQs on the current situation here.
Chief Executive Officer
South East Water