One in 10 (10%) households in England and Wales say they struggle to afford their water bill, according to a consumer watchdog.
The number could grow significantly in the coming months as more households are caught up in the financial fallout from Covid-19, the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) warned.
A third (33%) of customers have little awareness of the support services available from their water company, its annual Water Matters survey found.
It said younger and older adults and some minority ethnic groups are particularly likely to be at risk of missing out on support with bills.
CCW fears some households who have been impacted by coronavirus could be prevented from accessing financial and practical support from their water company.
It said schemes such as social tariffs can substantially reduce the water bills of low-income households, but only a small proportion of customers told CCW they were aware this support exists.
Nearly 750,000 customers have signed up to water companies’ social tariffs but that still does not come close to addressing the scale of the problem, it said.
Other schemes like WaterSure can cap the bills of some metered customers receiving welfare benefits who have to use a lot of water due to their circumstances. But, again, only a low proportion of households are aware of this support, the research found.
Water companies also need to step up their efforts to raise awareness of their priority services, which provide free practical support to customers in vulnerable circumstances, such as the delivery of bottled water to a customer’s doorstep during a loss of water supply, the consumer body said.
CCW is urging the industry to raise awareness of assistance schemes – particularly among under-24s, over-75s, Black-Caribbean and minority ethnic groups and those with no internet access.
These customers are among the least likely to reach out for help even if they are unable to afford their bills, according to its research.
More positively, the survey found that over three-quarters (76%) of customers think they get value for money from their water company while two-thirds (66%) agree their bills are fair – both marking an increase on the previous year.
Dr Mike Keil, head of policy and research at CCW, said: “Now – more than ever – households need to know their water company is on their side and there to help them if things takes a turn for the worst.
“Water companies have a wide range of schemes that can help customers through difficult times but they must do more to empower households with the knowledge they need to seek help.”
The Water Matters findings are based on more than 6,300 household water customers across England and Wales.
Households needing assistance with bills or other support can find more information at ccwater.org.uk.
Christine McGourty, chief executive of Water UK, said: “More than ever, water companies have been actively promoting exceptional levels of support to customers this summer, with nearly 70,000 customers given payment breaks to help them through this challenging time.
“It’s really good to see that this survey shows an increase in the number of people who feel they’re getting value for money from their water company and that their bills are fair.
“But we would urge any customer who is struggling to pay to contact their water company to see how they can help, as there’s a wide range of support available. We agree with CCW that it’s really important that any customers who need help with their water bills don’t miss out.”