England is failing to invest in the water networks needed to avoid recurrent severe droughts in the future, with the current government policy of “maintaining [its] fingers crossed,” warned Britain’s infrastructure chief.

The current drought was a warning that water systems could not cope with climate change, with hotter droughts interspersed with heavier rainfall, said Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.

“Investment is better than keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for emergency measures,” he warned.

Ministers could not prevent dry weather, but they could direct investment in infrastructure to cope with it, such as reservoirs and reducing waste, he said. “The government needs to determine what degree of drought risk they think is reasonable so people can manage and wait.”

Water bills may have to rise to pay for the necessary investment, he warned. “If you want more drought resilience, you need to increase water bills or general taxation [to pay for it]”, he said in an interview with the Guardian.

On Friday, eight of England’s 14 regions were declared drought, following a meeting of the National Drought Panel, made up of ministers, civil servants, water companies and conservation groups. Five water bodies have so far introduced hose bans, although farmers have called for more as ministers have been told farmers are facing destruction of up to half of the crop.

In a number of areas south of the drought England, people were forced to queue outside as their water systems failed. There were people in the village of Northend in Oxfordshire relying on tankers. In and near Guildford in Surrey, distribution of bottled water began over the weekend following a pump failure at Netley Mill treatment works. In Everton, Bedfordshire, supplies are already unreliable drought threatens further.

Hydrologists said these were isolated incidents and that measures such as standpipes – a vivid memory for some of the last severe drought in 1976 – were very unlikely to be needed in the current droughtas the water companies were more resilient and better prepared than almost half a century ago.

The National Infrastructure Commission has estimated the cost of overhauling the UK’s water networks at £20 billion by 2050, significantly less than the £27 billion the government has intended for new roads of this parliament, which, according to campaign participants, is not needed.

Armit said this cost was dwarfed cost of drought. “You’ll probably have to spend twice as much on bottled water from trucks,” he warned, amid increasingly frequent droughts.

New reservoirs should be seriously considered, he said, despite the difficulties in obtaining planning permission, particularly in the south-east of England.

There was a water meter is also likely to be neededto encourage people to reduce their use, but “the government is not interested”, he noted in an interview with the Guardian.

Armitt called for a national debate on how to finance water improvements. The two Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, called for action but avoided setting out specific investment proposals.

“You have to balance the investment in water – do you get it back through people’s bills or through general taxation?” Armit asked. “You have to make sure that poor people are not penalized.”

He said the role of water companies should be carefully scrutinized. “Mela criticism of water companies payment of dividends to investors. This should be a question for governments and regulators,” he said. “You can argue that the water companies have invested too little – the real challenge for the government going forward is to say what level of performance the public should be entitled to expect.”

People can have a significant impact on water use by changing their behaviour, such as not leaving taps running and only running washing machines at full load. But that alone will not be enough, and the government under a new prime minister will face difficult choices about the investments needed for new reservoirs and infrastructure, Armitt warned.

“There is a cost of living crisis, especially with electricity bills, and people don’t want to hear about rising water bills,” he said. “But one way or another, we have to find a way to pay for this new infrastructure.”

Poorer households could be protected if the government stepped in to make the current billing system fairer, Armitt added.

England experienced its driest July since 1911, with southern England receiving only around 10% of the average rainfall for this time of year. The period since November was the driest eight-month period in England since 1976.

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