It’s our most valuable resource, but experts warn we could be in danger of running out. Here’s why we should all be using our water more wisely
A water scarcity in Britain sounds like an unlikely possibility, given our rainy reputation. But a spate of heatwaves and washouts have hinted at a fundamental change in Britain’s climate – a change that could mean we actually have a lot less water in the UK than people realise.
‘Nowadays, you can go several weeks without needing a coat before a sudden downpour leaves the pavements swimming in puddles,’ says Jacob Tompkins, a water-efficiency expert and co-founder of Waterwise, the leading authority on water efficiency in the UK and Europe.
Jacob’s suggestion that Britain is one of the driest countries in Northern Europe, with less rainfall per person in London than the Turkish city of Istanbul, seems hard to believe.
But he explains that although the amount of rainwater we get is still the same as usual, the way it’s being distributed around the country is changing.
It seems that by falling in shorter, more intense bursts, a lot of the rainwater that we receive is running off on to the floodplains rather than seeping into the earth and channelling into our rivers and reservoirs.
As a result, our national water cycle is becoming unbalanced – leaving some areas of the country with less water than they need.
‘But that’s not the only consequence,’ reveals Jacob. ‘Towns and villages that have been built on low-lying land, such as Tewkesbury, face an almost certain possibility of flooding, so we could be coping with a water scarcity and a flood epidemic all at the same time.’
So what are we supposed to do? In the face of global climate change, how can anybody really make a difference to the situation?
Reducing waste, not use
‘It’s all about the collective impact,’ says Jacob. ‘On average, the typical Briton uses 150ltr of water per day.’ That’s the equivalent of two bathtubs.
Now just imagine everybody you see on the bus or the train is using that amount every day. It’s fine normally, but if we haven’t had rain for a few weeks or so, problems arise.
‘We’re only two particularly dry years away from using up all of the water that’s available to us,’ says Jacob.
And if that happens, Britain could be looking at a domino effect of catastrophes. Firstly, food prices would rise, as the water used to produce the meat and vegetables we eat becomes scarcer.
‘It takes 2,400ltr of water to produce just one hamburger,’ says Jacob.
And that only accounts for feeding, watering and washing the cattle. The food industry also has to process, package and transport the meat. So beef, it turns out, is one of the biggest drains on our international water supplies.
Before long, the country could start to experience power cuts, as the Government struggles to share out its dwindling water reserves between households, industry and the emergency services. Eventually, water pressure would start to fall, meaning our taps and showers would only trickle.
And as the water companies scrambled to pump emergency water resources from underground, cracks and holes could start to appear on the surface.
In the worst-case scenario, the Government could introduce rota cuts, meaning water supply would be cut off in the driest areas for up to eight hours a day.
However, Jacob is quick to reassure, saying this is unlikely to happen. Not least because Brits use a third more water than we actually need, so we can comfortably cut back without restricting ourselves.
‘Just look at the Germans, they get by on 120ltr a day,’ he explains. ‘While someone from Denmark only uses 100ltr a day.’
As a nation, we’re already curbing our wasteful habits, with people enthusiastically taking on the message of switching from baths to showers in recent years. But there’s still a long way to go.
Now, Jacob says, we need to focus on tackling embedded water consumption – that’s the amount of water used to manufacture things like food, clothes, cosmetics and even vehicles.
In particular, Jacob wants to debunk the myth that bottled water is healthier than tap, when actually they both come from the same underground source. Bottled water gets packaged and left to sit on a supermarket shelf for a long period of time, getting hot and cold with no residual chlorine to kill off bacteria.
The industry uses 7ltr of water for every single 1ltr-volume disposable PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottle it makes. And the consumer pays 500 times more to buy it than tap water.
Jacob adds, ‘That’s the thing, waste-water awareness doesn’t just save our environment, it also has an immediate effect on our bank balances and our health. And it doesn’t have to mean
a complete lifestyle overhaul.’
Even the simplest change – like opting for a glass of tap water instead of a bottle – could save us from living in a dramatically different world in the future.
For more tips on how to reduce water waste, visit waterwise.org.uk
Save our water
How to target hidden water waste
Do use the dishwasher
Pre-rinsing dishes wastes up to 6,000 gallons of water per year, and could stop your dishes from being properly cleaned. Dishwasher soap works by latching on to food particles, without which the soap simply slides off, leaving the dishes with bacteria on them.
Do use rainwater
Don’t use hosepipes
Around 21,000ltr of rainwater falls on the roof of an average house every year.
But by installing a water butt, you can collect this rainwater and use it to water your garden, instead of using an outdoor tap and hosepipe. And don’t forget to pour in a tablespoon of olive oil to create a protective coating from midges and mosquitoes.
Do try meat-free Mondays
Don’t go vegan
Saving water is about balance. Just one meat-free night a week could save more water than not showering for six months by cutting down on demand for meat, therefore encouraging the meat industry to cut back on its water-intensive production processes.
But that doesn’t mean you have to go vegan. If you’re struggling for inspiration, look to Mediterranean cuisine, which hardly uses any red meat (lots of oil-drizzled salads – yum!).
Do upgrade your taps
Don’t leave leaks
Just one leaky tap could cost you £18 per year, and with plenty of water-efficient models available for taps, showers and toilets nowadays at no extra cost, it’s worth asking next time you upgrade.
Do drink tea
Don’t drink coffee
It takes over 140ltr of embedded water (the water used to produce food and non-food products) to make a single cup of coffee, but around 40ltr to grow, process and brew the leaves for a single bag of tea.
Better yet, try switching a cuppa a day for a glass of water jazzed up with a mint leaf and a slice of orange.
Do have a shower
Don’t take over 6 mins
According to the Energy Saving Trust, a shower is only more water efficient than a bath if it’s under six minutes. That’s because the average power shower uses 13ltr of water a minute, while a bath uses 80ltr in total.
So if you want to take your time, draw yourself a bath instead.