Baby splashing in plastic tub

As record breaking summer weather continues, reduced rainfall and unprecedented demand for water means that water shortages and hose pipe bans are occurring across the UK.

Unfortunately, this is part of a long-term trend so, why are droughts increasing, what can we do to save water and why does it really matter?

What is a Drought?

Droughts are a period of reduced rainfall over a significant period of time compared to average.  The Environment Agency (EA) warned in May 2018 that without action, many areas across the UK could see significant water shortages. However, back then, no one could have predicted this scenario would come true, less than one month later.


"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink"
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
 

The EA report on water resources received huge publicity primarily, because people wondered how it is possible in rainy Britain, to be at risk of running out of water. Many commentators focused on water companies and the need for them to repair leaks in old pipes and invest in infrastructure. However, the EA also highlighted that climate change and demand from a growing population are also putting significant pressure on the availability of water.

As the world warms, the UK is experiencing record-breaking heat waves and drier summers. Due to climate change, rainfall patterns are changing with less frequent, but more intense, short showers. In Spring, many reservoirs had lower water levels than normal before the heat wave had even begun. The hot weather has significantly increased demand on the water companies and coupled with reduced levels of rainfall have resulted in water shortages across the country. There is a finite resource available, therefore, we all have a role to play in safeguarding water supplies and and there are many good reasons why we should take action to do so.

Saving water saves money

If your house is on a water metre you are paying twice for every litre of water you use. This is because water bills cover the cost of preparing drinking water delivered to your tap and subsequently treating the equivalent volume as sewage at a waste water plant.   Therefore, any measures to reduce water consumption saves money as most homes are now on a water metre. For example, a garden sprinkler can use 1.000 litres per hour which is seven times the amount most people use in a day. Therefore, avoiding water intensive activities such as this one, will lower your water bill and protect the environment. Conserving water also reduces the chances of punitive hose pipe bans being introduced.

Water is key to all life

As the world warms up, fresh water is increasingly in short supply.  During droughts, demand for water from farmers for irrigation and livestock increases and other industries. In hot weather, we all use more water for cooling down, washing dusty cars and watering gardens. This increase in demand and reduction in supply is why there is a real and growing threat that rivers could run dry, even in ‘wet’ Britain. As river levels fall, wildlife is in danger. The Environment Agency has been trying to rescue fish from ponds formed in streams before they dry out completely but obviously this is not possible in every river and is a short term fix.

Less fresh water in rivers and reservoirs is also damaging to all wildlife. Warmer water is harmful and can encourage unsightly algal blooms that can be toxic to aquatic animals. It also poses a health threat to dogs and other animals that drink from the water. If we want to protect wildlife and our four-legged friends that use our streams and rivers then using less water is crucial.

Wild Fires

Wild fires on Saddleworth Moor, Greater Manchester, 27 June 2018

Another crucial reason to use less water is that the brave firefighters up and down the country are battling wild fires on moors, woodland and fields. Extremely dry vegetation and often strong winds means that fire can spread very quickly.  The huge demand for water has resulted in pressure drops or no water available in the system when they desperately need it causing delays and frustration in putting out the flames. Therefore, it is crucial we all use less water; to save money, to protect wild life and to ensure there is enough water available when it is really needed.

How can we save water?

How can we save water and reduce the amount of water going down the drain? On average, we use around 140 litres of water every day for cooking, cleaning, drinking and personal hygiene. This amount can be greatly reduced by simple changes in behaviour and water saving devices. For example, a bath uses 80 litres but a brief shower uses about 30 litres so switching from baths to showers a few times a week can make a real difference.

Water companies provide free water saving packs that can help you to save water, energy and money. Gadgets, such as shower timers and aerated shower heads are free or low cost so they are well worth incorporating into your daily routine at home. These devices can be obtained from your local water company’s website. To find out who your water supply company is visit the Consumer Council for Water or see the map below.

UK water company boundaries

Top 7 water saving tips

Here are some top tips from One Home for saving water at home

  1. Ensure appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers, are run with full loads and use the eco setting.
  2. Ensure leaky taps are fixed, A dripping tap can leak 300 litres a year.
  3. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth.
  4. Fit hippo or other cistern bags if your toilet doesn’t have a dual flush button.
  5. Keep a jug of cold water in the fridge to save running the tap in warm weather.
  6. Use watering cans instead of a water hose in the garden and finally
  7. Drive a dusty car as a badge of honour during the drought.

A slightly more controversial measure is to flush your toilet less, working on the old saying “If it’s yellow, let it mellow!”

How to drought-proof your garden? 

Waterfall at the Bishop's Palace Gardens in Wells

Will grass survive a hose pipe ban?

Many gardeners are understandably concerned about their lawn going brown during the drought. Grass naturally goes dormant after a couple of weeks with no rain and can survive on very little water. Lawns that are brown are not a cause for concern in themselves so, the key message is to not worry in the short term. As soon as the rains return, the lawn should revive.  If hot weather stays hot and dry over an extended period of time there is a chance the grass may die if not watered. During hose pipe bans using watering cans is still allowed and wetting the lawn once a month, early in the morning or late in the evening, may be a good strategy if no rain is due for a while.

Summer gardening tips

There is an alternative to using precious drinking-quality water for gardens. The average roof collects enough water to fill 450 water butts every year.  Water butts harvest rain water from roofs which can then be used in the garden and to wash cars.  They cost from just £25 depending on size and style and are easy to fit. Water butts help to reduce your overall water consumption and increase your gardens’ resilience during drought.

Ensuring your garden blooms in dry weather means choosing plants wisely so, where possible to,

  • Use drought-resistant plants and shrubs.
  • Watering cans reduce waste water compared with hose pipes and sprinklers.
  • Water plants at the roots in the early morning or evening also avoids evaporation
  • Add mulch covering, such as wood chip or bark, on beds and borders and
  • Keep the weeds at bay.
  • Let the grass grow a bit longer by adjusting the height of the lawn mower blades. 

Finally leave a bowl out for wildlife who like us will be thirsty. Better still create a pond if you have space.

For more tips see One Home’s top tips for gardening.

First droughts, then flash floods

Ironically, dry spells are sometimes interspersed with heavy downpours particularly, during thunderstorms that result in flash floods.  For every one degree increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture so when the conditions are right, intense periods of rain and thunderstorms can follow.

The hotter the weather, the drier the land is so instead of soaking into the ground and replenishing underground aquifers, rain water rapidly flows off compact, hardened soil. 

In towns and cities, where hard surfaces dominate, this situation is exacerbated as water has nowhere to go except the drains, which can quickly over flow. Both these scenarios can cause localised flooding during thunderstorms therefore, in periods of drought some homes ironically are at risk from floods

Make every drop matter

In hot weather, saving water saves money on water bills, but crucially these water conservation measures also protect rivers and stream and the animals that rely on them during periods of drought. As global warming increases, unfortunately so will water shortages as droughts become more frequent. Therefore, we all need to make every drop matter.

 

We would love to hear your comments and stories about the issues raised in this article:

 

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