Let's make drought a hotter topic

Jo Bradley knows good SuDS. And she can’t help but wonder, as we wrestle more frequent droughts, why can’t we make water saving sexy?

We really need to rethink our priorities. Printer ink can cost as much as £2,400 a litre. Drinking water costs 1.82 pence per litre, according to the latest United Utilities data per metered property. The very low price of UK drinking water is one reason we don’t take water saving or rainwater capture seriously enough.

A pricing structure that made us feel slightly guilty to soak ourselves in a luxurious bubble bath – that had us pause to check that no one is looking before we water our herbaceous borders – could help to make water saving sexy. People could boast about doing it on their Tinder profiles.

Any pricing structure has to be equitable. Everyone must keep clean, drink enough and cook their food. So could we design a pricing structure that makes normal water consumption – say 100 litres per person per day – very cheap, or free, that makes excess water use prohibitively expensive?

I’ve always thought this would be a good idea. I’ve never quite understood why we can’t apply it. Maybe it’s the same reason we don’t have mandatory water meters on all homes.

Too expensive, you cry? Still less expensive than global environmental collapse due to drought.

New mindsets

We’ve got to shift our perception of water use. Droughts are here. They will become more frequent and deeper in the UK. They are already causing massive harm across the world.

I guess it’s unfortunate that droughts sneak up on us quietly, often taking weeks to develop, affecting wildlife more than humans as we carry on squeezing water out of our environment to keep the taps running.

It’s why people may not notice evolving droughts – especially people in urban areas, whose taps keep running, whose gym keeps the swimming pool open and whose supermarket meal deal still includes a bottle of water.

These urban dwellers don’t notice desiccation of agricultural land around the Home Counties, or the deaths of small shrews as ponds dry up in Hertfordshire. They carry on with their 21st century lifestyles, oblivious of the disaster closing in on us.

It’s a shame that droughts aren’t more like floods – showy, noisy, unmissable and newsworthy. No one misses a local flood. When roads close, tube stations flood, power fails and stores close, everyone suffers.

Floods arrive with a bang and shake everyone up. They make the front pages of The Guardian. They have their own warning systems, alerting everyone to look out. Droughts should take note: they need to be more flamboyant so that we talk about them more, to make us plan ahead for water shortages.

If we changed the pricing structure for water, made more noise about drought and alerted people to the massive environmental harm they cause, maybe we could shift the public perception of water and its use.

Everyone with a garden could have a water butt or a water tank and use captured water for all their gardening uses. Everyone with a shaggy dog who needs hosing down after every muddy walk could have a rainwater tank connected to a dog hose. We could build new homes with rainwater tanks in the attic to flush the toilet.

Farms that need irrigation in the summer could have winter-storage reservoirs to save water for summer. Large warehouses could capture their roof water and gift it to nearby farmers and growers.

We know how to do this stuff. We’ve been picking at the edges for decades. We need a huge shift to make it mandatory and affordable so that everyone does it.

Industry solutions

There are the other, obvious ways to save potable water too; fixing leaks in the network and reusing treated wastewater where appropriate. The water companies are already delivering these initiatives and looking for innovative approaches to deliver these solutions faster.

The final link in the chain is providing more raw water in the first place. This mustn’t mean deeper boreholes and ever higher river abstractions. We must find new, sustainable sources of raw water that don’t dry out the chalk streams or concentrate river pollutants in lower flows.

And that doesn’t mean shifting water from Wales and the northwest down south to sate thousands of thirsty new homes within spitting distance of London. Water supply screams “levelling up” more than any other subject.

If some regions are water scarce and others have a more secure water supply, build the new homes and invest in new businesses in the regions that can accommodate them. Don’t just steal the water, shifting it hundreds of miles away and destroying northern water environments too.

Drought looms over all of England. It is only a matter of time before all regions face water scarcity. We must invest now in new reservoirs in the south of England to catch winter rainfall and to make it available all year round.

Some of you have read this far and are thinking, this article is supposed to be about SuDS: she hasn’t mentioned raingardens once.

To put the record straight, good SuDS starts with rainwater capture and reuse. The most sustainable drainage system recognises that rainwater is, first and foremost, a resource.

So before you start to design a SuDS scheme to infiltrate, convey, store and treat stormwater, you should always ask yourself whether any of the water can be used at source first. It might have taken me to get to the end to spell it out, but this is the fundamental principle of SuDS.

If we get this right, we can make huge inroads into drought resilience. I often despair when I see SuDS designers struggle to deliver enough attenuation on a scheme to satisfy the restrictions in runoff rate from the site. They include ever-larger storage options, often favouring a giant, steep-sided pond at the bottom of the development.

Then local planning authorities throw up their arms in alarm at the safety hazards of deep standing water on a residential development. We can avoid that with good design and by focusing on rainwater capture and reuse at every property on the development.

We should challenge developers who say homeowners don’t like it, who argue that no one will maintain the system properly. Those excuses are out-dated and unacceptable. We must find a way to make it work.

We must make everyone proud of their water-saving devices. We must celebrate our environment protection and climate-change resilience. Most of all, we must be honest about the impact of our water use and abuse on wildlife and take responsibility for the recovery and success of the ecosystem around us.

If we take all the water to use for ourselves, we will destroy the creatures around us. We must learn to share so that we can all thrive as climate change bites.

Jo Bradley is director of UK operations at Stormwater Shepherds. This article is her latest SuDS and The City column, exclusive to The Environment

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