Where has the water gone? The problems and solutions to managing our water usage
After the driest year since 1976, and the driest month in nearly 90 years, an official drought has finally been declared across most of southern England. Here in the South-East, we have had less than 10% of the average July rainfall. The situation across the country looks bleak, with meteorologists fearing a record dry autumn which would severely impact the recovery of groundwater and reservoir levels.
Farmers are warning they won’t be able to plant next year’s crops, and we may see harvests of potatoes, carrots, onions, sugar beet, apples, hops and more fall by up to 50% this year – pushing soaring food prices higher still.
Meanwhile, wildfires continue ripping across the country and worldwide, with tinder-dry conditions and lack of water hindering firefighters’ efforts to extinguish blazes. The ongoing fires at Pirbright Ranges have required crews from neighbouring counties and London to tackle, despite having their own emergencies to deal with. Over 85% of the ranges – 650 hectares of rare heathland – has been destroyed, along with countless birds, reptiles and other animals which rely on this special habitat (you can help Surrey Wildlife Trust restore the Ranges here).
So where has the water gone?
You’d think that being completely surrounded by the stuff in the UK, we’d be experts at managing this critical resource. But we still have plenty of ways we can improve our management of water both as individuals and collectively. Here are some of the problems we face – and the solutions that might help us protect and conserve our water.
Agriculture accounts for around 70% of direct water use worldwide thanks to ‘embedded water’ – the water used to make things we use and consume. The intensification of farming has massively increased the demand for water to grow our food, with groundwater reserves increasingly depleted.
Meat and dairy in particular take a lot of water to produce. Every 1kg of beef represents 15,500kg of water, compared to 250kg for potatoes or 1750kg for soybeans, often used in alternative meat products. Industrial animal agriculture is also responsible for huge amounts of direct waterway pollution and deforestation. Sewage runoff from feedlots, along with fertilisers from fields, enter waterways and cause algae to briefly bloom, consuming all the oxygen and creating ‘dead zones’ where nothing can live.
Small changes to our diets could save huge amounts of water. It is safe to say that a vegan diet is at least 3x more water efficient than a standard meat-eating diet, but every meat-free meal has a big impact. Avoiding beef, pork and milk products is the best way to cut your water use.
For those already choosing plant milks over dairy, be aware that some options use lots more water than others. Oat milks are generally the most water-efficient, while almond and other nut milks can take a surprising amount of water to produce.
Fact: If the USA reduced meat intake by 50%, water use would be cut by 256 cubic kilometres every year – the equivalent of filling the Empire State Building 28 times every hour for a year.
The average UK one-person household uses 150L of water a day directly, about 25x higher than the average in the lowest consuming countries (although still relatively good compared to many similar rich nations). For comparison, the average bath holds about 80L. Homes may only account for 10% of total water use, but we can still reduce this significantly with a few simple steps!
Perhaps the single biggest at-home change most people can make is to collect shower/bathwater and reuse for plants (try to avoid getting too much shampoo in your bucket!) Showers are unsurprisingly far more water efficient than baths, and those who can afford it could also reduce bills and their water use by fitting more efficient taps and showerheads. For people with dishwashers and washing machines, set to ‘eco’ mode (this should actually save water compared to washing by hand). Making sure machines are full before running them also reduces both water and energy use.
It’s important to bear in mind that small actions (like turning taps off when brushing your teeth) are good practice, but won’t solve the problem alone! Often, changes like this are suggested by those who want to push the idea that individuals are solely responsible for water waste – like fossil fuel companies hinting that just doing our recycling is enough to tackle environmental problems.
Before it even reaches homes, farms or factories, 25% of our water is wasted thanks to leaking pipes. UK water companies were privatised in 1989, and since then we have replaced leaky pipes 10x slower than our European neighbours and built no new major reservoir. Instead, water companies have handed over £72 billion to shareholders and huge sums to bosses while investment in infrastructure has slumped.
Water is a ‘natural monopoly’ – we can’t switch water companies in protest like we could with buying a different brand of a product. But we can put pressure on them to fix leaks and maintain infrastructure – as well as pushing politicians to take action on our behalf.
Several political parties are calling for water to be renationalised, pointing at Scottish Water as an example. This water company is publicly-owned and pays no dividends, which allows them to spend 35% more per household on infrastructure maintenance and investment while charging 14% less for water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Scottish Water is the most trusted public utility in the country.
Grass and plants
Water use for gardens and lawns has increased massively, mainly thanks to changing tastes in plants and the increase in ‘passive’ watering systems like sprinklers. These devices may save time, but can use more water in 30mins than a family of four would use in a whole day.
Golf courses also use staggering amounts of water – up to nearly 4million litres per course per week in summer – yet many are exempt from hosepipe bans.
If you have space, why not install a water butt to collect rainwater from your roof? These storage devices connect easily to gutters and can save hundreds of litres from going down the drain when replacing the hosepipe to water your plants. Avoid using passive systems like sprinklers, and water in the early morning or evening to minimise water loss due to evaporation.
Even better, you can make your garden more water-efficient directly. Certain species of grasses and other plants require far more water than others, so planting those which require less water can go a long way to reducing your use. Artificial lawns may not need watering, but they are ecological nightmares, and increase garden and soil temperatures significantly. Just accepting that your lawn may not be as green as you’d like during hot periods is a good start!
As we use more water than ever, the climate crisis is changing the water cycle we’ve come to rely on. ‘Attribution science’ – working out how climate change has impacted a particular weather event – is still a young field, but experts estimate the 2018 UK drought was made 30x more likely by climate change, It is likely the UK’s total water supply will drop by 7% over the next 20 years due to climate change.
However, this doesn’t just mean drier weather with less rain. Extreme weather events, including storms, floods, and severe cold which can damage pipes and other water infrastructure, are also made more likely by climate change. The UK experienced a record wet twelve months up to February 2020, but just two months later had the driest April on record until this year.
Parched soils cannot quickly soak up water, which means the storms that brought some relief to our current drought are far more likely to cause flooding, topsoil erosion and landslides. Overloaded drains will also see more sewage dumping in our rivers by water companies.
The big one – how do we tackle the climate crisis? There are countless ways that you can help minimise your own impact and campaign for a more sustainable society – far too many to go into in this article! Drop into ZERO to see what projects are underway focusing on climate change locally.
Huge expanses of concrete and asphalt don’t allow water to reach the soil, forcing it into sewers and increasing flood risk. Trees and plants also play a key role in storing water – an individual tree can intercept nearly 80% of a rainfall event, slowing flow into drains and enabling far more water to transfer to the soil. This also helps filter out urban pollution such as heavy metals from vehicle tyres and brakes.
Flood protection measures like dredging rivers and canals, or building up concrete banks, can temporarily relieve flooding in one place but worsen it downstream by channelling more water through quickly.
We need to plan our towns and cities to make best use of water. Urban parks, or even trees and plants along streets, can store and transfer huge amounts of water into the soil while also decreasing ambient temperatures and evaporation. Natural riverbanks and beds, particularly in farmland, can help slow the flow of rivers during heavy rain and prevent flooding downstream, as well as reducing pesticide and fertiliser runoff that kills wildlife and creates ‘dead zones’.
Those of us who aren’t town planners can still get involved in local decision-making! The way you vote, nationally and locally, can make a huge difference on water issues (and on environment generally). Why not look for local water groups or campaigns based around water, like Surfers Against Sewage or the River Wey Trust?
The Water Rangers
Another local initiative to consider is the Water Ranger team hosted by Zero Carbon Guildford! The team is building a local database of river quality and conditions, including various types of water pollution, from rivers in and around Guildford. Volunteers test a range of spots monthly on the River Wey, the Tillingbourne and other nearby rivers. Come along to ZERO to see our new water display or get involved using the button below!
It looks like we will be seeing more traditionally British weather in the coming weeks, and rivers, lakes and reservoirs will be beginning to fill once more. But we should be very aware that ‘normal’ weather patterns may already be a thing of the past – as the recent devastating floods in Pakistan have shown.
If there is a silver lining to the droughts and floods we have experienced recently, perhaps it’s realising that we can sometimes take clean, accessible water too much for granted. The importance of conserving and protecting water has never been clearer, both for ourselves and for the wildlife which relies on our waterways. We can all do our bit to cut down on our own water use, while helping put pressure on industry and decision-makers to make the sweeping, top-down changes we also need to truly tackle water scarcity and pollution.