Water Poverty and Insecurity in England & Wales

This blog is by Ruth Sylvester a PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds. 

You may be wondering how water insecurity applies to a country like the UK. It’s a fair question, and one that helps to reveal how we perceive poverty and inequality.

Since the 1970s, the trajectory of the global WASH sector has moved from infrastructure, to services, to equal access for all. Two key learnings from this journey are the importance of governance focused on equity, and services that are appropriate for people’s lifestyles. One of the greatest WASH myths is that infrastructure equals access.

Establishing the human rights to water and sanitation in 2010, enabled global advancement in access to services. The philosophy of fulfilling individual and collective rights pushed quantitative measures of access forward, into conceptualising what meaningful access and use looked like. Meaningful use of rights such as water and sanitation, must result from and support freedom from poverty and other restrictive structures.

Research in the Global North has shown that entrenched unequal structures play out in access to services. For example, studies in Northern America have found many examples of racialised WASH disparities. Other Global North studies have examined the influence of patriarchy and class hierarchy on access and use of WASH services.

Although located in the so-called Global North, the UK has its own specific cultural context. Water poverty and insecurity are characterised in unique ways in England and Wales (E&W), having developed over time alongside shifts in water sector governance and wider society. The historical development of water poverty and insecurity have been traced in a rigorous literature review, to reveal how they should be approached in the present day.


Water Poverty in the 1990s

The water sector in E&W was privatised in 1989, and remains the only water industry in the world operating under a fully privatised governance model. Household water and sewerage disconnections rose 40-fold in the four years prior to 1989, as the industry brought in new procedures to ensure customers payed their bills under the new regime. Domestic disconnections peaked at 21,282 in 1991/92, after which the number began to fall, due to Ofwat policy changes (Marvin and Guy, 1997).

Rates of diseases including dysentery, hepatitis and shigella reportedly increased substantially during this period, raising national public health concerns. Major research studies at the time did not find a strong causal relationship between increased incidents of such diseases and disconnections. However, a smaller study discovered unreported health problems in disconnected households, and suggested that such groups were unlikely to be identified by systems due to wider inequality (Middleton and Saunders, 1997). Despite the lack of clear cause and effect evidence, campaigns to end disconnections on public health grounds grew throughout the 1990s.

The new labour government of 1997 faced mounting public and political pressure which, in 1999, led to the implementation of the Water Industry Act. The Act made domestic water and sewerage disconnections illegal; a landmark reform that fundamentally changed the defining characteristic of water poverty in E&W. The reform was timely and necessary, ensuring a higher standard of living for households vulnerable to water poverty. Unsurprisingly, this led to a decline in concern over the issue of water poverty. The starkness of water poverty no longer existed in the public consciousness, and the emotive struggles of poor hygiene and disease were replaced by financial hardship.


21st Century Water Poverty

The Water Industry Act protected customers, enabling them to continue using running water and functioning sewerage even if they could not pay their bill. This progressive social policy demonstrated the influence the government could have in the supposedly entirely privatised water industry. However, this did not solve the problem of water poverty, as it had no effect on the affordability of water. Households who still could not afford their bill became financially indebted to water companies instead of being disconnected. Therefore, 21st century water poverty in E&W became a private problem, affecting customers’ personal finances, health and wellbeing.

Drivers of water poverty in E&W (Ofwat, 2011)

Drivers of water poverty in E&W (Ofwat, 2011)

Water insecurity in the physical sense was seemingly eradicated by the implementation of the Act. However, there are unresearched vulnerabilities that may restrict physical access to services in E&W. The first set of vulnerabilities is around people who do not live in standard housing.  This includes those who experience homelessness, live off-grid, or reside in institutions. These groups are not considered domestic customers of water companies, and so their experience accessing services and the responsibilities for fulfilling their rights are unclear.


Intra-household dynamics is an established topic in Global South water insecurity literature. It is concerned with the relational interactions within a household that affects water and sanitation use. Often a gendered perspective is taken in this research. Grey literature from E&W has touched upon intra-household dynamics, with qualitative research finding many respondents expressed dissatisfaction with water bills being addressed to a single named person in the household, because it implied that one person had the power to control all household finances. The complex nature of these dynamics in E&W remains unknown.


Future Perspectives

The water industry in E&W made a Public Interest Commitment (PIC) in 2020. It combines a number of goals, one of which is to eradicate water poverty. The industry aims to meet this goal by 2030, along with many others, such as achieving net zero carbon emissions. It must be considered how policy moves can be made to simultaneously improve carbon emissions, system efficiency and water poverty. Such multi-benefit adaptations and approaches are required globally if pressing concerns over climate and poverty are to be addressed.

The water industry still has far to go to achieve its targets, as well as meeting global goals. There is currently insufficient research in E&W to enable the water industry to simultaneously achieve all the goals presented in the PIC. Governance focused on equity and services appropriate for the increasing variety in peoples lifestyles, is the only route to eradicating water poverty in E&W by 2030.


Ofwat, 2011. Affordable for all: How can we help those who struggle to pay their water bills? Ofwat. [Online]. Available from: https://www.ofwat.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/prs_inf_afford.pdf