“Jaws of death” or sustainable solutions? About water shortage in England

— by Anne Van Loon —

Sir James Bevan, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, in a speech at the Waterwise Conference on 19 March 2019, warned that water demand could surpass water availability in England in 20-25 years (see BBC summary & full speech). In it he warned for complacency and argued for concerted efforts to decrease our water demand and increase supply. His speech drew a lot of attention to the issue of water, not only because he used the term “jaws of death” to describe the point where the rising demand crosses the falling supply. I think this is a very important statement from the Environment Agency and a wake-up call for all actors involved, from the government to the water companies, from the Environment Agency to the general public. The prediction of the “jaws of death” is real and England could face a “Day Zero” like Cape Town in South Africa last year, but this is not a given. There is a lot we can do to prevent a Cape Town situation from happening. The speech by James Bevan lists a range of opportunities. One of the things he focuses on most is changing our water use behaviour to make it normal to save water, like it is normal to recycle and it increasingly becomes normal to reduce our use of single-use plastic.

BBC 5 Live produced an item discussing water shortage in England, which was broadcast on Sunday 31 March 2019. In it they gave some background to the situation and interviewed a few water experts (including myself) about water in general, water supply in England, the “Day Zero” situation in Cape Town, and possible solutions to prevent water scarcity in England. This is the radio clip (my contribution from 11 min): But they could only include part of the interview, so here is what I wanted to say in full. These are the four solutions I proposed:

  • Creating more awareness about water shortage in the UK: We think we live in a wet country and that we don’t have to worry about drought. But our demand for water is also very high and we do have droughts that challenge our water supply (notably 1976, and more recently 2010-12 and summer 2018) and will have them in the future. Water companies do a great job in providing good quality drinking water, but they don’t talk about possible water shortage because they don’t want to upset people. This needs to change. We need to share stories about previous droughts and the government and water companies need to be more open in their communication about water shortages in the UK. If we all would be aware of the need to save water, we would be on board when measures need to be implemented and we would even be able to prevent hosepipe bans or worse. I also think that plans for increasing our supply, like building new reservoirs or water transfers from wetter regions with lower demand, is not a solution because it perpetuates the idea that we have enough water and that there is nothing to worry about (see this recent paper in Nature Sustainability). We would rely on the engineering, but this is not sustainable. The best way to avoid the “jaws of death” or “Day Zero” is reducing our water use.
  • Metering household water use: One important step towards water saving is knowing how much you use, which can only be done if you have a water meter (currently only halve of UK households have a water meter). All households should be metered! There are different estimates of how much water this would save (roughly 10-20%), but it is an important step towards awareness of water use and it opens up possibilities of water saving competitions (I have seen some great ideas for those being developed by students). We all have electricity meters and even “smart” meters – why don’t we have water meters?
  • Water harvesting & reuse: We are flushing our toilets with high quality drinking water; we are watering our gardens and washing our cars with high quality drinking water. This is not needed if we implement both small and large-scale measures. We can all increase our efforts to increase water reuse. For example, all households should have a water butt for rainwater harvesting! 24,000 litres of water could be collected each year from the roof of an average house, which would be enough for all our outdoor use. It should also become normal to use water of the dishes or of running the tab until you get warm water to water your plants. On a large scale, the government can do a lot to stimulate the implementation of water systems that separate water flows for drinking water and for other domestic use such as toilet flushing and washing a car. All new development should have these separate greywater systems! And why not reuse treated sewage? Our treatment plants are cleaning sewage water to very high standards. This water should be used for all kinds of purposes like crop irrigation, industrial use and domestic use (pilot projects are being done to make this happen).
  • Reducing your water footprint: Most of the water we consume is not the water we drink; it’s the water we eat or the water we wear. The water that is used for agricultural and industrial products is often hidden, but the Water Footprint shows how much water is included in a variety of products. For example, 1 litre of bottled water takes 1.5 litres of water to produce. And it also produces a lot of plastic waste that pollutes our groundwater and rivers that we take our drinking water from! Globally, most water is used in agriculture. Different product need different amounts of water, but most water is needed for meat. For example, 15,500 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef. If you eat less meat you are saving water both in the UK and elsewhere, in the countries where the cattle feed is produced and they often have even less water available.

Want to read more about these issues and solutions? Have a look at these websites: