Practical notes on how to save water on...

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Drought Summit

We get plenty of rain, so what's the problem? Drought Summit as Rivers in England Dry Up

Yesterday, Caroline Spelman, Environment Secretary , hosted a Drought Summit to discuss the impending water shortage over the next 6 months for the South East, East Anglia and the East Midlands. The meeting involved stakeholders such as farmers, wildlife groups and water companies, to discuss solutions. This is the current situation:


West Sussex
East Sussex

Ms Spelman, in an interview with BBC Radio 4, was asked "what can we do to save water, get water meters?" she replied "Water meters can be helpful, particularly for households with a small number of occupants or a reduced income. But the most important thing is to save water. Everybody knows how to save water."

In my opinion this is a short sighted approach from the Environment Secretary. Two-thirds of all water consumption in the UK is from households. Consumers have to be motivated to use less water. Water meters make people realise how much water they are using and also allow people to pay for exactly what they use. This means consumers will be motivated by spending less as well as a moral concern about environmental impact.

In the same way that counting calories helps overweight people eat less, reading the water meter will give people a better awareness of how much water they use each month in comparison to other households and benchmarks.

In the UK we have a perception that drought doesn't happen here, it doesn't affect us, as the UK is a cold and wet country. We get plenty of rain, so what's the problem? The real underlying problem is human population. There is a dense, urban population in the UK, particularly in the South East, creating a huge water demand. Looking back at the last 100 years, UK population has increased from 38 million in 1900 to 59 million in 2000, this staggering 55% increase or extra 21 million people, are putting pressure on the water companies to over-abstract water from all fresh water sources. This has already caused long term damage to the environment and wildlife with significant loss of animal and plant species, particularly for wetland and river habitats.

From the map below (click on the image to zoom in) you can see how the work of water companies impacts on freshwater resources. There are many areas with no spare capacity (orange to red areas) and many areas are seriously over abstracted (red areas) which harms the local ecology. Almost every inch of the country is being used to collect ground water to serve the public water network.

Unfortunately UK consumers are in a weak position to react to this drought warning for the following reasons:

- fixed tariffs, often set annual, no penalty for high water use
- water meters are not mandatory, most people have no idea how much water they use
- few water saving products available that offer real savings
- prohibitively high cost of installing rainwater recovery systems

I see the only way to curb this demand in the short term is to motivate households to save water e.g. by making water meters mandatory, promoting the use of water butts for gardening, higher tariffs for excessive water use. There are many ways to reduce water consumption but most people are not motivated to do this currently as the perceived consequences of carrying on as normal are nil. In the long term the government will need to reduce UK population to a sustainable level that puts less strain on the available water resources.