Creative responses to water stress needed now

As the threat of drought becomes a reality in the UK, Claire Hoolohan, Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, considers how we might change the way society uses water.

United Utilities has announced that they are likely to bring in a hosepipe ban in early August. On one hand, this comes as a surprise as in the last few days the hot weather has broken, bringing rain to give us a brief break from the Mediterranean summer we’ve been experiencing. On the other hand, the Met Office suggests this is one of the hottest, driest summers we’ve experienced since 1910.

That means there is: less water available, and yet higher demand as people dig out their paddling pools, water their gardens and have extra showers to cool off; an array of businesses using water to maintain their crops, lawns, gardens and verges in the hot, dry conditions; and moorland fires more intense and prolonged than is common, placing an extraordinary demand on the North West’s water supplies just as supplies run low. So actually, when I think about it, I’m not surprised at all.

So what about leakage?
Immediate reactions often centre on leakage, and there is no doubt that leakage is part of the challenge. But water companies in England and Wales have strategic targets to reduce leakage in a way that is economically and environmentally sensible. As a result, the amount of water leaking from our water infrastructure is reducing. United Utilities, for example, report having halved leakage, from 945 million litres per day in 1992 to 457 million litres per day in 2015. But leakage is only one part of the challenge. Water shortage, or water scarcity, is about how much water is available at any given time, and how water is used by people and by businesses.

Though it is tempting to focus on leakage, we need a much broader discussion about how to change the ways that water is used in every sector of society. In all likelihood the pressures on our water supplies are going to increase. Climate change means we’re likely to experience hotter, drier summers across the UK, and that the north west of England, like many regions, will become more susceptible to water shortages. That means less water available in our rivers and reservoirs. If we don’t change the way we use water, it also means higher demand as water is part and parcel of how we celebrate hot and sunny weather. Population growth is also a challenge, set to increase demand by 15 per cent by 2065.

A coordinated approach to reduce demand
Changing the way we use water is not a simple thing. For years we’ve been hearing advice like ‘turn off the taps while you brush your teeth’, or ‘take a shorter shower’. There is no doubt that these simple actions will save water. But this advice alone will not fundamentally alter the expectations that the public and businesses have of water supplies, or how water use is designed into our homes and cities. For this to occur, we need a much broader array of organisations to come together and consider how we design a world that is more attuned to the water supplies we have.

We already have examples we can build on. Unilever look to reduce water and energy use associated with the use of their products by developing and marketing innovative new products such as dry shampoos and or ‘quick wash’ laundry detergents. As well as these products existing, it is important that they become socially accepted alternatives to water use.

We can think about what is in our homes and gardens, and the demand for water that this creates. Bathrooms are increasingly water efficient, but there is still a long way to go to make water sensitive gardens a common occurrence. Luscious green lawns are a great source of pride for some people, but as others have discovered, there are a whole swath of beautiful shrubs and plants that deal far better with dry weather. So this is about what we plant in our gardens, but also about what we have access to in garden centres, and that we have the TV shows, online resources, and other sources that show us what to do with it.

We need to go further than that still to consider how clothing (and or workplace clothing) might be better designed to keep us cool, less sweaty and less dirty, so that it requires less washing. We also might consider how we might address the disconnection between water and society (or our rivers and our homes) in order that we better relate to the environmental pressures bourn out on our ecosystems.

All of these avenues have aspects of material design, marketing, and social acceptability that require coordinated responses. In order to deliver, they require that every individual, business and organisation in a position to influence the way that water is used is attuned to the upcoming challenges the UK faces.

Paradigm shift to tackle global challenges
There is also much deeper conversations to have about how we mitigate climate change. Addressing climate change is not necessarily going to prevent a future hosepipe ban. But, on a global scale, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is urgently needed to avoid the worst possible impacts of climate change, amongst which, in the UK, are the increased likelihood of water shortages in the Summer and higher chance of storms year round.

Changing the ways we move around, heat and light our buildings, power our economies are all imperative to mitigate climate change. So are changes to the foods we eat and ways that we purchase and use devices.

None of these changes will be achieved by expecting people to suddenly change what they do. Again here, it requires consistent planning across every sector of the economy, so that low-carbon ways of life are embedded throughout. There are lots of good news stories here. For example, the dramatic rise in renewable energy in the UK, the fact that vegetarianism is an increasingly common part of the UK’s healthy diet and that cities, like Manchester, are taking leadership on climate action. But there are also huge challenges. Investing in new runways whilst the rail network is starved of investment is not the way to mitigate climate change. Nor are continued investments in fossil fuels.

Fundamentally this is about how we prepare for the future. Talking about what we want from the future and asking how we might achieve this in sustainable ways is an important first step. Increasing the sense of urgency, and distributing the sense of responsibility so that it is not only water companies and their consumers trying to contend with water shortage is vital. Finally, for me, it’s about creativity. We drastically need new thinking about the way we manage water resources, about how to start these discussions, and how we implement the changes that are much needed to change the way that water is used in society. A hosepipe ban will probably help a little, but in the long term we need better, more creative ways to save water.

Claire Hoolohan is a Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester. Her current project, working with Alison Browne (Geography and the Sustainable Consumption Institute) and colleagues from Sheffield University, looks to design a toolkit to support transformational change in the way that resources are used in everyday life. This is funded by the ESRC and is supported by Defra, Northumbrian Water Group, The Food Standards Agency, Artesia, Actant, Waterwise, WRAP, and WWF-UK.

This article first appeared on the Policy@Manchester blog.

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