Water. Have you ever known a day without free and copious access to it? When the taps just stopped? Do you ever contemplate where your water comes from, where it goes once you’ve sent it down the drain, or how many times a day you flush the toilet? The thing is, water is pretty important, vital you could even say. So why don’t we value it and what can we do to change our attitudes towards water?
16 billion litres, every single day
Have you ever swam in an Olympic sized swimming pool? Try to imagine 6,400 of them. That’s the amount of clean drinking water we consume in England and Wales every day. Yes, that’s 16 billion litres, every single day. And that demand is only getting greater.
The growing population in the UK and demand for housing are big contributors to the considerable strain on our future water resources. Not to mention the importance of water to our economy – essential for industry, power generation, commerce and agriculture. Then there’s our little battle with climate change. Fake news? Sadly not.
It was just in the summer of 2018 that we saw water shortages across the UK as a result of record-breaking hot weather. Australia was described by The Guardian this month as “a country in the grip of extreme weather bingo” amid record temperatures, severe floods, wildfires and drought. The entire world is in flux and water is at the heart of it all.
According to the Climate Change Committee, the current Water Resource Management Plans in the UK include an ambition to reduce average household consumption to 137 litres per person per day, which seems like a slightly weak aspiration to me as levels were only a mere 2 litres more per person in 2015/16. Surely we can do better than this?
Yet, consumption isn’t the only thing concerning the Environment Agency (EA), there are the notorious leaks… A report from the EA in May 2018 estimated leakage from water companies is currently at 3 billion litres per day. Say what?! That’s almost a fifth of our daily consumption down the drain before it even gets to the tap. A survey of customers by South West Water found that reducing leakage was valued five times higher than taking water from rivers.
Rivers – it has to come from and go somewhere
According to Water UK, about one-third of tap water in England and Wales comes from underground sources (aquifers), with the rest coming from reservoirs, lakes, and rivers. Once it arrives through our precious plumbing systems and we watch the Coriolis effect as it spins down the drain, it then goes through a sewage treatment process before it is deposited back into our river network and inevitably ends in the sea. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that a significant proportion of our rivers are environmentally damaged or under threat. A report from the WWF stated that 40% of rivers are polluted with sewage that can harm wildlife and put human health at risk. The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) was established in 2000 to provide a mechanism to protect our watercourses by assessing the ecological and chemical status, helping to bring wetlands, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems – with regard to their water needs – into ‘good status’. Yet, the WWF stated that only 14% of rivers in England had ‘good’ ecological status. Furthermore, unsustainable abstraction is preventing an additional 15% of our rivers from meeting those ‘good’ ecological standards.
Future water demand is projected to be in deficit by up to 16% per day by 2050 across England, Scotland and Wales. Yes, you read that correctly – 16% PER DAY. This pressure to meet demand is only going to have further detrimental impacts on our rivers and all the life interlinked with them, including ours.
Using green infrastructure to save precious water
There are other ways to preserve our water resources locally and make effective use of greywater through the implementation of green infrastructure (or blue infrastructure) in our buildings and designs. This is a method of building with nature to solve urban and climatic challenges. It could include the installation of green roofs or water gardens to stem the flow of rainwater into our storm drains, reducing the risk of flooding. Reed bed systems are also becoming a popular and sustainable method of wastewater management.
This type of infrastructure is widely known to be better able to protect us against the risks of climate change – be that flooding, drought, heat waves, or cold temperate – than traditional grey infrastructure. It is also proven to improve mental health and wellbeing whilst also providing critical habitats to our declining wildlife.
If you think this sounds like a win-win and would like to see more of it in your local area then please encourage your local councils to make green infrastructure mandatory as a method of water management into their local plans.
We can all make a difference
Okay, so I’ve painted a slightly bleak picture here, I apologise. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you have such little control over the future of water in our country, so what’s the point in even trying? Or maybe you still don’t care as long as you can stand in the shower for as long as you want, run the tap needlessly whilst you brush your teeth and keep drinking copious amounts of coffee. And you know what, that’s fine. But just think how much water 139 litres is that we personally use on a daily basis. A small change in attitude toward water could make a big difference. Our future selves depend on it.
You’ll be happy to hear that we aren’t going to do it alone either. Water efficiency is a growing priority for businesses across the globe with a survey of 896 business leaders at the Davos World Economic Forum finding that water is the number one risk factor posed to their business. The Government has also put plans in place to achieve the commitments of clean and plentiful water and reduce the risks of harm from environmental hazards (come Brexit). On the 15th January, they released a consultation into plans to improve long-term planning of water resources and drainage (closes 12 March 2019).
If I could get you to do one thing towards saving water, it would be that you are merely more conscious. Catch yourself running the tap when you aren’t actually using the water. Time yourself in the shower. Consider how you wash your dishes – do you have the tap running, run the dishwasher, or do you fill up the sink? How often do you wash your car? Do you really need to wash those jeans after one or two wears? Once you spot all the ways you use water, I am confident you will start making the small changes that are suitable for you and your lifestyle, whilst making a big difference to the way we as a nation consume water. Good luck, our future selves will be thankful.
About the author
Jackie is an ecologist by training, with a background working in infrastructure and sustainability. She now works for the Gloucestershire Local Nature Partnership, bringing nature to the forefront of decision-making both locally and nationally. You can read more of her articles on her blog at theroadtowild.com
Blog posts on the CIEEM website are the views and opinions of the author(s) credited. They do not necessarily represent the views or position of CIEEM. The CIEEM blog is intended to be a space in which we publish though-provoking and discussion-stimulating articles.