Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Fresh water - a luxury we can no longer afford to waste?

“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.”

2050 –  the year by which many areas of England could run out of water.

The Background

The Environment Agency has just published a report[1] (May 2018) entitled The State of the Environment, and though it has attracted some media attention, it is so engrained in us to think of the UK as a wet country that the warnings will receive little in the way of public attention.  But the facts are startling.  Already London is one of 9 cities worldwide[2] most likely to run out of drinking water, while the South East of England is most likely to see significant deficits in water supply as it has only the same rainfall as Melbourne, Australia.  Abstraction of water in the UK is currently running at unsustainable levels in 25% of groundwaters and 20% of rivers. And all this in spite of the fact that on average rainfall has increased during recent winters, even if summer rainfall has decreased slightly.

“Extractions already exceed recharge during normal precipitation,” states the report, adding that in 2016 unsustainable extraction meant between 6% and 15% of rivers did not achieve a good ecological status or potential.   This is the freshwater equivalent of Earth Overshoot Day  – the date each year by which our consumption for the whole year already exceeds nature’s capacity to regenerate resources for the year, meaning we are living on resources ‘borrowed’ from the future.  NASA warns[3] that water shortages are likely to be the key environmental challenge of this century, with 19 hotspots round the world where water depletion has already been dramatic.  The United Nations has declared that water scarcity already affects more than 40% of the world.

It is estimated that 3 billion litres of water – enough to meet the needs of 20 million people – are lost each day in the UK from leaks.  However leakage is currently one-third less than it was 30 years ago and water authorities are now expected by the government to reduce leakage by an average of 15% by 2025[4].  The government also aims to increase woodland in England, aiming for 12% tree cover by 2060 by planting 180,000 hectares before the end of 2042, to compensate for the fact that we have the least tree cover of any country in Europe.

The facts and the stats

Of the water taken from fresh water sources in the UK, only 55% is for public use while 36% is used for electricity supply and other industries.  This statistic should prompt us to consider everything we buy or use in terms of how much water is required to create it, in order to save this precious resource wherever we can.  Anything that is produced by industry – and that includes the food and farming industries – uses huge amounts of water.  A cotton tee-shirt requires 1800 litres of water to grow the cotton.  One kilo of beef uses 15415 litres.  One kilo of chocolate consumes 17196 litres.  So whether we are eating bananas (just 790 litres per kilo) or cheese, buying prescription drugs, smart phones or a new car, unbelievably vast amounts of water are required to grow, process or produce them.

The production of bottled water requires 6 times as much water to produce it as is in the bottle!  It currently costs less than £1/year for one person to drink 8 glasses of tap water a day, compared to £500 for the same amount of bottled water.

Where else can we save water?  By making things last longer, clothes being a prime example.  Proctor and Gamble[5] have found that washing in cooler  water (30-40 degrees) extends the life of one 3kg basket of clothes by 4 times, saving 230k of Co2 and 7000 litres of water.   WRAP state that extending the life of just one in 5 garments by 10% across the whole of Europe could save 3 million tonnes of Co2  a year (from creating new clothes).  That’s enough to power half a million homes for one year.  It would also save 150 million litres of water.  And it would divert 6.4 million tonnes of clothes from landfill.

The Aims

Are we really using too much water in our homes? In England the average consumption is 141 litres per person per day, and the aim is to get people to reduce it to 100.  Cape Town recently had to impose a water ration of 50 litres pp per day.  One resident stated that her family of four get by on 100 litres a day for the 4 of them.  

Where are the big savings to be made? In ablutions and laundry.  Over the last few years it has become the social norm to wash clothes every time you wear them and to shower at least once, possibly twice a day.  It’s also become a habit to leave the tap running while cleaning teeth, wasting  9 litres a minute.   How necessary really are these habits? 

The cry used to be, take a shower as it uses so much less water than a bath. Unfortunately, since most showers last anything from 10-30 minutes, this no longer achieves the desired result.  Limiting your shower to 4 minutes is an easy way to save water.  Try the stop/start method, only running the shower when you actually need to rinse off.  You save 8 litres for every minute you reduce your shower time.  If everyone in the UK would cut 1 minute from their shower we would save over 10,000 million litres of water a year![6]

Turning the tap off while cleaning teeth is an easy win as is washing dishes by hand (in a bowl, not under a running tap) rather than in a dishwasher.  It is so profligate to rinse dishes under running water.  Either don’t rinse, or rinse all the dishes together in a bowl.

A full load of washing at hot temperatures uses about 77 litres a time.  Often clothes do not need washing every time they are worn.  An airing on a hanger, maybe a press, is all that’s required. I put the machine on just once a week at 40 degrees.   For a family of 4 that would equate to 4 times a week -  not 7 or more.

I’ve been working on these things at home for several years now.  My average daily consumption (according to my water meter bill) has dropped from 100 litres to 70 litres, half the national average.  I only reckon to press the toilet flush once a day.  This is another easy save:  keep a bucket under the bath taps to collect the water that would otherwise be wasted until the hot comes through, and use that to flush the toilet.  The hand basin has a tap aerator so that you use less water than it appears from the flow. 

Water authorities on their websites and social media such as Twitter have water-saving gadgets to give away and lot of tips to save water, including saving washing-up water to water the garden.  It seems to me, these small saves are not important in terms of litres; they are important in creating a mind-set that water is a valuable resource which we should be treating with respect.  “Without further action, there is a 1 in 4 chance over the next 30 years that large numbers of households will have their water supply cut off for an extended period because of severe drought.”[7]


[6] Waterwise
[7] National Infrastructure Commission report “Preparing for a drier future”, released in April 2018. Quoted by ‘Utility Week’.

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