The bigger water saving picture

The recent and prolonged dry spell has brought water scarcity in the UK into sharp focus. Several water companies in the south of England have triggered restrictions, including hosepipe bans.

On 12th August the Environment Agency declared drought in eight out of 14 water areas. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the future. We can’t just pray for rain. We need to regenerate river catchments and plan for the climate crisis. 

Robyn Shaw, Assistant Education and Engagement Officer at the South East Rivers Trust, looks at the factors around water scarcity and introduces our Water Saving Tips page, which emphasises that the issue is one we must all take responsibility for and think about all year round.

Driest summer on record

Water – or the lack of it – is headline news at present. July 2022 was the driest month in southern England since 1911, says the Met Office. It featured the hottest UK temperature ever – 40.3°C. Water resources across the UK are extensively below normal and many of our rivers and streams are suffering from exceptionally low flows. 

England had just 35% of its average rainfall for the month of July, dropping to only 17% in the south.

From a local perspective, the Hogsmill – a precious chalk stream in South London – has received only half of the area’s average total rainfall since the start of Spring. In the Thames area, we have experienced only 65% of long-term average rainfall over the past six months.

This has led to river and groundwater levels falling below average and reservoir levels falling significantly, demonstrating that water scarcity is not just a summer issue, but one we need to think about throughout the year.

Dry grass has been the defining picture of summer

The causes of water scarcity

The Environment Agency has warned that, within 25 years, England will not have enough water to meet demand. By 2050, the South East of England will need to find at least another billion litres of water a day

The main issues are:

  • Climate crisis: The changing climate means that, generally, the UK is experiencing warmer, wetter winters (including springs) and drier, hotter summers. Extreme weather events such as storms and droughts are also becoming more frequent and intensive, wreaking havoc on our landscapes, water resources and lives.
  • Population density: The south east of England is one of the most densely populated areas in the UK. Over the years, the demand for water has increased, yet the reliability of its source has decreased. Extended hot, dry spells increase our demand for water further, intensifying the pressure on freshwater ecosystems that are vital for wildlife. The recent heatwave in London saw demand increase to 2.9 billion litres of water per day, 150 million litres a day higher than normal for this time of year, says the Thames Water Drought Newsletter.
  • Water Management: Greater investment is needed in our failing water infrastructure and in managing the water we have better. In 2021, three billion litres – around 20% of water fit for household use – were lost from our water system each day because of leaks. The Government’s current leakage target is unambitious. Part of the solution to drought lies in the problem of floods; we need greater investment in solutions that work with nature and hold rainwater – when it comes – in the landscape.
Hosepipe bans are in place in several parts of the country

Low flows - a disaster for wildlife

The water we have on Earth is the same water that was around when the dinosaurs were alive. The water in our hydrological cycle remains the same. 

However, climate change has altered our weather patterns and human development has interrupted the natural water cycle. Water is pumped from our groundwater and rivers at unsustainable rates. It is used and returned – but often not in the same place – and polluted.

Our rivers have been suffering severely from low flows in south east England in the past few months – and if we lose our rivers, we lose not only the life within them but life everywhere around them. 

For example, if river levels dwindle, pollutants become more concentrated, the river slows and becomes choked with sediment. Water temperatures increase and the oxygen concentration of the water diminishes and fish struggle to breathe. Ultimately, the whole ecosystem comes under stress, impacting birds and mammals that live nearby.

As water restrictions came into place in Hampshire recently, Mark Lloyd, CEO of the Rivers Trust, told The Guardian group:

“Low flows in rivers are disastrous for wildlife and, ultimately, we need to take much more care of this incredibly precious resource. There needs to be a nationally coordinated publicity campaign to reduce water use and universal water metering.”

The River Mole at Maidenbower near Crawley

Follow our tips to reduce your wider water footprint

It would be easy to argue that only 10% of freshwater is used in our homes and to rely on the Government, water companies and industry to solve the water scarcity challenge. While they should be held accountable, we all have a role to play in using water more wisely and considering how it is embedded in items we buy: If we all did a little bit, there would be more water left in rivers and for the environment.

Many of us could reduce the national average in England of 141 litres of water a day per person by adopting water-saving behaviours in the home. Households with water metres use 33 litres a day less, arguably because they are more aware of their usage, especially when paying for every drop. Sadly, only about half of households in England and Wales have meters. You could contact your water company to ask about installing one.

We should also consider water used in producing the food we eat, the goods we use and the clothes we wear – known as virtual water. About 20% of our global freshwater is used in industry and the remaining 70% in agriculture.

Some products are more intensive than others. However, where goods are sourced from is also an important consideration – buying goods from water scarce regions is likely to have a much greater impact water issues in that country.

Eating vegan once a week could save 5,000 litres of water, because growing and producing meat and dairy is far more water-intensive than plant-based food.

Do you need that new item, or could you repair your clothing? A new cotton T-shirt can take 2,720 litres of water to produce – that’s about three years’ worth of drinking water for one person. 

Our Water Saving Tips page gives dozens of examples of how we can save water in the home, our gardens and as consumers.

Visit our Water Saving Tips page

A water meter

What else can I do?

  • Keep in touch with our latest news, views and prompts about our work and volunteering opportunities which help protect rivers, via our newsletter
  • We can recommend a great book to learn more about water scarcity. ‘When the rivers run dry: What happens when our water runs out?’ By Fred Pearce
  • Listen to the Podcast on BBC Sounds called Costing the Earth, Dry me a river. 
  • Interested in doing something at home with the family? Our Junior River Rangers scheme has different sections to help you protect rivers, including themes on saving water
  • Book an education session for KS1 and KS2 levels: Visit our education page to find out about school sessions in Crawley and Dover (Our River Our Water) or our Project Kingfisher sessions on the Hogsmill, Beverley Brook and Wandle rivers.
  • If you spot wildlife in distress because of lack of water, or see a pollution incident, contact the Environment Agency on 0800 807060.
Project Kingfisher education session © South East Rivers Trust