Many parts of southern England and Wales are facing drought conditions and are preparing for emergency water measures, yet the country gets more annual rainfall than anywhere in continental Europe.
The long periods of drizzle Britain is renowned for mean we take water for granted in a way some hotter countries do not. But as the climate gets hotter and we become drier, this will no longer be feasible. So how did we get here and what can politicians, companies and individuals do to mitigate against drought?
Before we tell you not to run the tap while you brush your teeth and start having two-minute showers, it is important to note that water companies let an astonishing amount of water leak through their creaky, old infrastructure. Recent analysis by the Times found water companies are wasting up to a quarter of their supply in leaks. Campaigners argue that since privatisation a lot of money has gone to shareholders of water companies instead of into improving infrastructure. What’s more, the problem has gone on so long, the leaks have become ever more expensive and complicated to fix.
The industry says it is trying to make a change. Stuart Colville, director of policy at trade body Water UK, said: “[Water] companies are committed to halving leakage by 2050 – building on recent data showing some of the lowest levels of leakage ever – and on supporting customers to do their bit.”
Stop personal wastage
Having said that, Britons do use a lot of water. The average citizen uses significantly more than most Europeans – usually about 150 litres a day per person, compared with 128 in France, 130 in Spain, and 122 in Poland. Only three countries use more per capita: Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, which tops the table at more than 200 litres a day.
Mark Lloyd, CEO of the Rivers Trust, has been campaigning to persuade people to stop using high-quality tap water to do things like wash their cars and water their gardens. Instead, he says people should get water butts, and the government should launch a public information campaign to reduce usage.
He says: “We have a stubbornly high per capita usage rate which is one of the highest rates in Europe and that’s not coming down. The government has set targets to bring that down and they haven’t outlined how they’ll do that yet. We need fundamental behaviour change, and new houses should be built to be water efficient as well as energy efficient.”
Ofwat, the water regulator, suggests people use washing-up bowls instead of running the tap constantly, waiting to have a full load before doing any washing, and watering plants with wastewater.
Release the beavers
Part of the problem in the UK is we have historically drained our rather damp land to improve prospects for farming and infrastructure. We have also straightened our rivers and stopped flooding around them – removing wetlands – which is not only terrible for nature but sluices water downstream quickly, causing floods when it rains a lot and droughts when it does not.
A furry rodent could hold the answer; beavers build dams, creating wetlands and slowing the flow of rivers, storing water in the landscape. There are some trials of enclosed releases in England, as well as some free-roaming beavers in Scotland and some parts of southern England. Campaigners want the government to allow releases of the enterprising animals nationwide.
A spokesperson for the Beaver Trust explains: “We urge the government to prioritise water security and to expedite the reintroduction of beavers into river catchments as part of a low-cost, restorative, solution-based approach to mitigate against the devastating impacts of drought and wildfire.”
Well, they would say that. But one farmer, Chris Jones, has found that having beavers on his land in Cornwall has protected him from the worst effects of the recent drought.
He tells us: “What the beavers have done is they’ve built a whole series of dams and these all store water. They help to keep the area of land adjacent to the stream damp and drought-resistant.
“The beavers have reconnected the stream to the flood plain, so you have all these little streams crossing the land where there was no water before. Now, ponds are building up behind the dams, building up water reserves in the land.”
Farm more sensibly
British farming is accustomed to using water in an unsustainable way, abstracting water from rare chalk streams to irrigate crops and growing many water-intensive crops in the driest parts of the country – for example potatoes, which are very thirsty plants, in East Anglia.
Farmers could be incentivised to create reservoirs on their land so they can farm without needing to irrigate as much. They could even sell their water to water companies in times of drought. We farm food, so why not water too? Considering what we grow and where we grow it could also help use water more efficiently in future.
Kelly Hewson-Fisher, national water specialist for the National Farmers’ Union, says: “The prolonged dry spell of weather we’ve experienced so far in 2022 highlights the urgent need for the government and its agencies to work with the agricultural and horticultural sector to better plan for and manage the nation’s water resources to help build resilience and provide investment opportunities for irrigation equipment and to build more on-farm reservoirs. In addition, approaches to flood and drought risk management need to ‘join up’, to be more innovative and more ambitious. This would allow farmers access to a secure supply of water for food.”
Get the government to act
New legislation is needed to make sure water companies clean up their act and water is used in a more sensible way countrywide. Water UK has suggested a new Rivers Act to hold companies legally accountable to commitments made in the 25-year environment plan. This would legislate on water wastage and ensure rivers do not dry out.
NGOs including the Rivers Trust think the government should campaign more on getting people to reduce their water usage. There is also hope that the upcoming government land use strategy will take water into account and suggest thirsty crops are not grown in areas where it does not rain much, for example.
The government could also legislate to make homes more water efficient and set strong targets for new developments.
One dripping tap being turned off helps but does not address the systemic issues that cause drought. Perhaps the recent heatwave will provide food for thought to policymakers – ultimately, it will be their decisions that will determine whether Britain copes with the next hot, dry summer.