Call for Public to Think About Water Wants and Needs

9th June 2020

The UK has been basking in sunshine for weeks now and more time at home means more people playing in the garden and filling their paddling pools. The dry spell has had more serious results in Cumbria, though, where water levels are low, and the local utility company has applied to Defra for a drought order. This is five years after Cumbria faced its worst flood in 550 years with 50,000 homes severely impacted and only 3 months after Storm Ciara brought flooding to much of the County. Our Senior Consultant Yvonne Rees, has supported policy makers, regulators, and businesses in making decisions regarding the management and governance of water for over 25 years, and offers some insight into why the management of, and our attitude towards, this precious resource is so important.

Never take anything for granted

“In the UK we pay water companies to collect water for us, treat it, and deliver it to our taps. We’re not connected to the work that goes on in the background so it’s easy to take it for granted – but what happens when our water companies can’t keep up with the demand? In 1976, we had a period of water scarcity following two very dry years, and thousands of homes had their water supply replaced by communal standpipes in the street. In 1995, now seen as the driest on record, standpipes were also introduced in some areas. All over the UK, climate change and increasing population are putting extra pressure on our water supply. The organisations responsible for England’s water supplies have developed a national strategy looking at water needs for the next 30 years and have asked five regional groups to consider how we can share water effectively in the future. We already do this: for example, in the North West, Manchester gets a lot of its water supply from the hills in Cumbria and Wales. But it will require all of us to do our bit, something we have shown we can do in recent months.

A water-friendly landscape

“We need to find a way of managing the excess water when we have it, and making it available when we don’t.  Urban and rural planning decisions can have a huge impact on water management: our roads, for example, are the new rivers, and when heavy rainfall comes, floods are exacerbated by the water runoff from impermeable surfaces. How often do we see front gardens paved over for convenience, or to provide extra parking? There are examples of urban design which can have the opposite effect: for example, rain gardens pioneered in California, are designed to collect and absorb water. The UK is in a special position of being able to care for our water from source to sea: it’s not the same in places like the Netherlands where a large proportion of its water is imported from Germany via large rivers such as the Rhine. But strangely it seems we remain largely disconnected from the issue of water management. In my opinion, we must now address the disconnect we have with water.

A change in habits

“We all have a role to play here and we can start by making the connection between dry weather and water use, to change our behaviour and try to avoid a situation where some struggle to access drinking water. In Britain we use an average of 150 litres per person per day, whereas in Germany and France they use less than 130. For me, it’s a case of thinking carefully about the difference between what you want, and what you need: we don’t need to have a sprinkler on our garden all day, or a power shower every morning, but we do all need to drink water to survive. It’s worth considering that the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that the minimum required for short-term emergency survival is of the order 20 litres per person, and whilst that reflects extreme circumstances, it’s clear that we are using far more water than we actually need. As Thomas Fuller the English churchman and historian said, ‘We never know the worth of water till the well is dry’.”

Picture courtesy of James Moran via Flikr CC BY 2.0