It's time to get wiser about water

What would smarter, more efficient water use look like in the UK? Waterwise has drawn up a roadmap to improve national water use by 2030 Nathan Richardson and Jo Osborn report

There is no getting away from the fact that we are using more water. Since the 1960s the total amount of water used in UK homes has increased by around 5,000 million litres a day (ml/d). The data points to greater personal use, from a 60 per cent increase in average per capita consumption, and to population growth adding 13 million people.

It is therefore not surprising that pressure has ratcheted up on both water supplies and the environment, now exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Temperatures in the UK are reaching record levels almost every year, often accompanied by record levels of water demand.

Drought conditions have extended across much of the UK and Europe. The UK water sector has been taken aback by the severity and speed with which we moved from normal conditions to drought last year. With temporary use bans and drought orders in play this winter, we will need consistent above-average rainfall to avoid serious problems this summer.

The UK’s lack of water resilience is evident. That’s what recent studies from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Environment Agency have concluded. Research by England’s five regional water resources groups found a resilience shortfall of some 4,500 ml/d below levels that support a secure water supply and a healthy environment.

We urgently need solutions. These include supply-side solutions such as new reservoirs and greater water reuse but we must also get a grip on water demand by reducing leakage and consumption levels.

In other words, we need to use the water we already have much more wisely. England expects to meet around 50-60 per cent of its 5 billion l/d shortfall by reducing water demand.

If we use the water we have more efficiently, we will make our water supply more resilient – with significantly wider benefits.

It will boost the UK’s environmental resilience, leaving more water in the environment and reducing the pressure on our precious rivers and streams. It will improve our financial resilience; cost-of-living pressures make it only more urgent to use less energy and cut our utility bills. And it will help us to meet our net-zero targets, reducing the 5 per cent of UK emissions that arise from water supply and use.

A cunning plan
Convinced? We hope so. But what do we need to do? Waterwise’s new UK Water Efficiency Strategy to 2030 sets out some practical steps. Waterwise consulted more than 100 organisations across the UK including governments, regulators, consumer groups, water industry and environmental NGOs.

The strategy presents a vision for the UK in 2030 in which all people, homes and organisations are water-efficient. It focuses on reducing water demand through water efficiency, water reuse and cutting leakage in properties, as opposed to the water networks. It includes ten clear strategic objectives to achieve the vision.

The objectives include a mix of policy leadership, progress with practical solutions such as leaky loos and a step change in efforts to make water users more aware of why we should use water wisely – and how to do it.

The strategy highlights why each objective is important, what needs to change, who needs to be involved and how we will track progress. It features some great case studies to show what is possible, including Thames Water’s water-saving insights from smart meters and Affinity Water’s Save our Streams campaign.

Waterwise estimates that by implementing the strategy we could save at least 1,500 ml/d by 2030, equivalent to building ten new reservoirs across the UK, see table one. The new strategy makes it clear that success rests on actions from the water sector – but also from governments, regulators, business leaders and ultimately from all of us, as water users. We all need to play our part.

It bodes well to see how many organisations came together to develop the strategy. We need to build on that enthusiasm. A new, cross-sector Water Efficiency Forum chaired by Market Operator Services (MOSL) chief executive Sarah McMath aims to do just that. The forum will meet three times a year to share good practices and encourage collaboration across sectors.

Jo Osborn is policy and projects manager at Waterwise. Nathan Richardson is Waterwise head of policy

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in Feb 2023

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