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When the well runs dry

For anyone caught in the October downpours, it might seem ironic that the UK is facing the prospect of serious water shortages in the decades ahead. The problem is particularly acute in London and the South East and unless drastic steps are taken the problem can only get worse.

Never mind the shortage of housing in the region - add a shortage of water. Nearly two years of drought have reduced reservoirs to around 70 per cent of their capacity and more alarmingly groundwater levels, which support many key water resources, are likewise depleted.

Climate change is blamed for affecting rainfall patterns, but increasing demand – and the persistent problem of leakages – has exacerbated the issue. Met Office figures show that between November 2004 and June this year, the area received just over 1000mm of rain, some 22 per cent below the average expected during such a period. June received 22.4mm or 59 per cent below the historic average. Spring gained 14 per cent above average at 194 mm following a wetter than average May, but this did not improve the overall situation.

Historically, the UK has been able to take water for granted; shortages were a problem for foreigners in dry and dusty corners of the world. But London’s rainfall in recent years has fallen to a level of 650mm per annum, a figure that renders it semi-arid. The city is dryer than Madrid and Istanbul but clings to the profligacy of water consumption that might almost be seen as an Englishman’s ‘ancient birthright’.

Well, not any more, we’re being told.

“Our water supply is limited and yet demand continues to rise,” said environment minister and chair of the Water Saving Group Ian Pearson. “With the combined effects of climate change and a changing society we cannot assume that the way we use water now can continue indefinitely.”

The South East has a population of around eight million, with seven million of them in the Greater London area. By 2016, the capital’s population is expected to rise by some 800,000 people. To this context, the South East Plan aims to build nearly 29,000 new homes per annum over the next 20 years. Affordable or otherwise, these will quite literally place a drain on the region’s – and quite possibly the nation’s – water resources.

Responding to a report by the House of Lords science & technology committee, the DCLG helpfully pointed out that homes don’t use water – people do. That’s all very well, but people need homes – and they need to be hooked up to a water supply. So to the housing crisis add a water crisis – it never rains but it pours.

Londoners, of course, show the greatest average use of water per person at 156 litres a day. The national average is 150 litres, which is still higher than European levels: Berlin and Copenhagen, for example, get through 120 litres per person per day.

Hose-pipe bans and the ongoing drought might have woken the powers-that-be from their slumbers, but for some there is still a long way to go to avert the crisis. The DCLG announced mandatory water saving features for new homes in its draft Code for Sustainable Homes.

The lowest level of the code will save about 25,000 litres of water per year per home. The code also looks to introduce compulsory water efficiency measures. The South East Plan also features water-saving facilities to be incorporated into new homes. Such measures include showers, which use less water than baths, as well as spray taps and dual flush toilets – the latter reducing the single biggest source of water usage.

Additionally, there is a drive to see metering of water made compulsory. This isn’t enough, according to Friends of the Earth, however. The environmental group believes new homes should be ‘water neutral’.

The organisation’s campaigns co-ordinator in the region, Brenda Pollack said: “We are still not seeing enough action to conserve water. The Government… is dragging its feet over the standards needed to make sure that housing uses water as efficiently as possible. Unless we take firm action, the situation will get worse.”

Back in March, London Mayor Ken Livingstone launched a campaign to save water. It promoted the tactics individual consumers can use. Simple things such as turning off the tap while brushing teeth, for instance, can save up to ten litres of water per person per day. By August, figures showed a 15 per cent reduction in peak water consumption, showing that the message was getting through.

Exhorting individual consumers to save water is laudable – any saving helps – but it also disperses the burden of blame onto those least able to affect the outcome of the country’s water shortages. We all have a responsibility to save water, of course, and we can all play a part, but some are better placed than others to make a difference.

Planners, development agencies, local authorities, government agencies, water companies and even house builders are all chief players in facilitating the consumer’s ability to make better use of water. “We can’t just build our way out of trouble anymore,” said Ian Barker, head of water resources at the Environment Agency.

“Water companies need to consider a range of sustainable solutions, which means not just focusing on engineering solutions. It shouldn’t be all about reservoirs and big pipes. Cutting demand by introducing more metering in homes and water efficient fixtures and fittings will lessen or at least defer the need to develop some resources. We believe all homes in the South East should have meters by 2015 and all new properties should be fitted with low water use appliances as standard. Other options such as effluent reuse and rainwater harvesting are cost-effective alternatives.”

The last suggestion will be welcome to the Rainwater Harvesting Association (RHA), which feels the industry has been somewhat hung out to dry. The systems essentially collect rain from roofs, which would otherwise be drained away. The ‘harvested’ rain is filtered, stored in a tank, and it is plumbed into the house (under a separate supply) so that it can be used for purposes such as flushing the toilet or even washing clothes. It is claimed that it can reduce a household’s mains water consumption by an average of 50 per cent.

As an industry it is small, but growing, though it has a long way to go before it reaches the size of its Counterpart in Germany. Each year, about 80,000 installations are built per year, according to consultancy Mall GmbH.

Terry Nash, chair of the RHA, said: “The UK market is absolutely minute compared to the German Market. Therefore to date throughout the last five years you’re talking in terms of 1,500 to 2,000 Systems total, whereas in Germany they’d be doing that in a six month period, maybe less.”

Part of the problem, he feels, is that in the UK it is a fringe phenomenon, whereas in Germany it is mainstream and planners take it as much for granted as electricity or, indeed, mains water supply. It’s an oversight, Nash feels, that is hindering the development of an important player in water conservation.

“If the Government could be persuaded that by consistently pursuing rainwater harvesting over the next 50 years, then strategically we could make a significant contribution to the water supplies in this country,” he added.

Rainwater harvesting may indeed be able to make a significant contribution in the medium to long term, along with the contributions individuals can make by changing their habits, or using water efficient amenities in new homes, but there is another player in the drama that, long-term, can make a Monumental difference. One that, frankly, calls into the question the entire nature of the water crisis. Step forward the water companies.

If only they could finally plug the last of those niggling leaks. Across the board, leakages have been reduced by some 20 per cent, but according to the Environment Agency a staggering 3,608 megalitres of water are still lost from the supply networks a day – enough to supply ten million homes. That’s more than enough to accommodate growth in the South East.

We should all make the best use of water that we can, but perhaps government agencies and water companies should spend a little less time wagging their fingers at consumers – and get their own pipes in order.

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