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Making the most of our wet weather (while we can)
With predictions that we could face national water shortages within 25 years, what can we do to stop the UK from running out of water?
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Inside three decades, the UK could be nearly 20 percent drier, and home to around 75 million people. How are we going to ensure everyone has enough water?
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
Published 19 May 2020, 22:35 BST, Updated 27 May 2021, 12:58 BST
Fifty years ago, the Welsh village of Capel Celyn disappeared beneath a flood of freshwater. There was public outcry before the community was sacrificed to create a reservoir that would supply water to Liverpool, 60 miles away. In 2011, a plan to build a new reservoir in Oxfordshire was rejected amid strong local objections, but today the proposal has been revived, provoking more passionate protests.
By 2050, our summers could be 3°C warmer and 18 percent drier, and the population of the UK is expected to reach 75 million people. Last March, the Environment Agency warned that in 25 years England’s water supply may no longer meet demand, reflecting reports that the UK as a whole could face serious water shortages in the coming years. For all our complaining about wet weather, we don’t have as much usable water as we think; we’re likely to get even less in the future, and will need more than we have. However, these dire warnings are tempered by a confident message that the UK can secure its future water supply if urgent action is taken on three key challenges: reducing water consumption, fixing leaky infrastructure―and increasing water supply.
Central to increasing our supply is the controversial question of reservoirs. Reservoirs store water for when we need it by capturing heavy winter rains to make water available all year. They are fundamental to managing the seasonal imbalances that will become more pronounced with climate change. But complex planning and legal hurdles, along with fierce public opposition, have meant that despite proposals, no new reservoirs have been built for decades. This could change with government plans to designate new reservoirs “nationally significant infrastructure projects,” moving these projects outside of the regular planning process and making them easier to greenlight. Despite the expense, objections, and environmental concerns, water authorities and the government believe building more reservoirs is essential to meeting the UK’s current―and future―water needs.
In addition to new reservoirs, the UK will need more water transfer projects that move water from wetter regions to drier or more heavily populated areas: Welsh Water supplies 133 billion litres a year to Severn Trent customers in Birmingham. Currently only around four percent of the UK’s water is transferred between companies, but there are plans for a further 20 projects, and the supply potential is huge. Scotland has around one hundred times more water than it uses: Loch Ness alone contains more freshwater than all of England and Wales combined. With 31,000 freshwater lochs and climate change likely to bring even more rain to Scotland, surplus water there could be collected and rerouted to the water stressed South East —London, for example, receives less rainfall than many Australian cities.
Another major scheme being considered is desalination, transforming saltwater into freshwater. Although desalination treatment can be twice as expensive, in the U.S., Australia, Israel, and Spain, desalination plants are in use, and evolving technology has resulted in steadily increasing efficiency and decreasing costs. The UK’s only major desalination plant is in London, where a high population (nearly 9 million and growing) and low rainfall (around 600mm a year) mean serious water stress. However, despite the capacity to supply water to a million people a day, it is so expensive to run that the plant is intended only for emergencies and has not yet been put to use. However, as costs come down, desalination plants could be used not only to help alleviate occasional droughts, but to also supplement regular water supplies in the future.
As well as increasing supply, we will need to better manage the water that we have. Despite significant improvements, our leaky infrastructure loses around 23 percent of our public supply. Water authorities are under pressure to fix leaks, but analysis suggests it may be cheaper to simply use more water. The problem is that leaks aren’t easy to find or fix, with over 200,000 miles of pipes and 24 million connections—almost entirely underground. Most leaks never even appear on the surface, and fixing them still means digging holes. But increased smart monitoring and an ever-improving armory of techniques, including satellite imagery, acoustic logging, and electric sensors, are identifying problems more quickly and locating them more accurately. However, there is still no quick fix. Even replacing all the pipes in England and Wales at a cost of £100 billion would only cut water leak losses by half.
Perhaps the easiest way to safeguard our water supply is to simply use less water. Globally, the biggest consumer (and often waster) of water is agriculture, and, as climate change increases the need for irrigation, farmers must make the most of highly efficient drip irrigation systems, or even the completely closed water systems of vertical farming. Meanwhile, industry is a major water user, and has already reduced its consumption in recent decades through improved techniques, water recycling, and replacing older equipment with water-efficient equipment. While there is certainly more that industry can do, for sizeable savings the Environment Agency is looking closer to home.
Domestic water use is one area where we can all make a difference. The call to make water waste socially unacceptable supports a target aimed at cutting water consumption by more than a third to around 100 litres per person per day. While this appears ambitious, there are many simple things that any of us can do to save significant water. Installing efficient dual flush toilets and flushing less often can halve water use in the lavatory. Swapping baths for showers, fitting high-efficiency showerheads, and taking shorter showers can save around 20 litres a minute. In the kitchen, turning off the tap when rinsing vegetables or wiping surfaces will save around nine litres of water per minute, while washing dishes in a fully loaded dishwasher instead of handwashing them in the sink saves around 50 litres; and pre-rinsing dishes saves another 24 litres.—combined that’s the savings are more than double the 2050 target.
The reality is that the UK will soon have significantly more people drawing on potentially a lot less water. This is the very definition of water stress—demand exceeding supply. But the UK is in a strong position to meet the challenge. It’s calculated that if by 2050 we cut per capita consumption to 100 litres and reduce leaks by 50 percent, we would save enough water for 20 million more people. That we could run out of water may seem unimaginable, but we must take the threat seriously―this is a problem that affects everyone, and we are all a part of the solution.