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What Is Water Abstraction?

In simple terms, water abstraction is the act of taking water from sources such as rivers, streams, canals, springs, underground or the sea.

The abstracted water is then carried along a distribution channel to be treated and used.

Origins of water abstraction

People have been abstracting water from the ground for thousands of years by building wells. Evidence that the Chinese had the skill and know-how to dig deep drinking-water wells dates back 7,000 years, and one of the world’s oldest wells, located in Cyprus, is thought to have been constructed in 10,000BCE.

Wells were created by digging a shaft deep into the ground until it reached the natural water table. This created a small reservoir at the bottom, providing a consistent supply of water which was reached by manually lowering and raising a bucket. As digging was a manual job, wells had to be large enough to accommodate a person all the way down. To stabilise the holes, wells were lined with stones, timber or wickerwork.

Water taken from wells by hand and distributed to water crops is the earliest form of irrigation. This led to the formation of canals, dykes and reservoirs.

The world’s deepest hand-built well is the Woodingdean Well in Brighton. Construction of the well began in 1858, with the aim of supplying water to a workhouse and a neighbouring school. The project was also seen as an opportunity to provide employment and training to the town’s destitute. After two years, the well was over 400 feet deep, but it was still dry. The workhouse guardians decided to keep digging and work carried on for another two years until they found water at 1,285 feet – 850 feet below sea level.

Rather than dig deep into the ground, the Ancient Romans used the power of gravity by building aqueducts to abstract their water from mountains and glaciers. The aqueducts channelled the water into towns and cities where it could be used as drinking water and for irrigation and washing.

Water abstraction licences

UK businesses that abstract more than 20 cubic metres of water a day must apply for a water abstraction licence from the Environment Agency. Water abstraction is regulated to ensure there is enough available source water for sustainable use by everyone. It is therefore in all our interests that businesses do everything they can to ensure that water efficiency is treated as an urgent priority, especially ones that rely on water abstraction.

The Environment Agency will initially grant licences for between 6 and 18 years, with renewals generally lasting 12 years. Licences can be a business asset and are often included with the sale of land.

However, there is concern that, with the speed and uncertainty of climate change, the rules may no longer be fit for purpose. The UK government is currently planning reforms to the existing water abstraction policy.  We will be following their progress with interest.

Castle Water is the UK’s leading independent business water supplier, helping businesses in England and Scotland save on their water bills. We support our customers to become more water efficient and more sustainable by giving plenty of free advice and resources, helping to protect the UK’s water network that provides our customers across the UK with clean, efficient water services.