Skip to content Skip to navigation

Sustainably Speaking Blog

Other Blogs

2040: The Year of the Drought? And How to Start Saving Water at Home

21 July 2020

6 mins

On my phone’s home screen I have a widget for The Guardian which updates daily and gives me three of their top articles from that day. Today I saw a headline which made my heart drop in terror – ‘Parts of England could run out of water within 20 years’. 20 years. I would only be 42. If I had children, they would only be around 10 years old.

The article reports that water companies have been allowing 3 billion litres of water (1/5 of our daily supply needs) to be lost to leakage per day. It heavily criticises the water companies and their regulators, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, for their complete lack of action regarding the leaks since the privatisation of the industry in 1989. Furthermore, this story has come only a few weeks after the Guardian’s previous exposure piece stating that 9 privatised water companies had released raw sewage into rivers in 2019.

Data from the water industry regulator Ofwat shows more than three billion litres of water leaks every day, a level unchanged for at least four years

Of course we can argue this is something that was out of our knowledge and control. But guess what? We did know. The Independent published a similar article exposing water companies for losing 3.3 billion litres of water every day to leakage back in 2010. They go on to state that that the water lost would meet the daily needs of 21.5 million people. Now if we do a quick calculation and assume that on average 3 billion litres has been lost every day since 2010, and water companies work 365 days a year, that totals 10,950,000,000,000 (~11 trillion) litres of water have been lost to leakage in just 10 years. That was enough to meet the daily needs of around 78.5 billion people.

According to The United Nations, 785 million people still lack even a basic drinking water service. And yet, we’ve lost enough water that could’ve met the needs of those people for 2.7 years. To leakage. To an easily avoidable problem. So why hasn’t there been a rush to fix them? Rose O’Neill, water policy manager for WWF in 2017 (yes, the same issue was also reported in 2017) said that the water companies and regulator Ofwat account for the cost of fixing leaks but not the taking of water out of the environment. This meant that it was “cheaper to drain a river dry than fix a leak”, and the leaks were one of the reasons rivers had been drying up in Spring of that year.

Believers and supporters of the view of water as a human right challenge the view of privatisation or the consideration of water as an economic good. They argue that commodification of water is ethically, environmentally and socially wrong because it bases decisions of water allocation on commercial, not environmental or social justice considerations (Barlow & Clarke, 2002). Proponents of this view point further refuses privatisation because it entails principles of scarcity and profit maximisation rather than long-term sustainability in water management. 

The Impact of Privatisation on the Sustainability of Water Resources, Dr, Mohammed Yousef Al-Madfaei. Source: IWA Publishing.

If 3 billion litres are lost to leaks every day, that means water companies must take another 3 billion per day to meet UK demand. Therefore, double the amount of water is being pumped from our rivers. As climate change continues to make our weather patterns more extreme, this, combined with these sort of water consumption levels, increases the risk of droughts. More and more people in the UK have experienced a hosepipe ban in their area in recent years, and these sorts of measures are set to increase, and even worsen. If you’re interested in reading more about the effect of climate change on water and rivers in the UK, I recommend this free access paper by Watts et al.

Fears of UK drought after months of low rainfall - Charlotte Lomas ...
UK droughts in 2017 referred to by Rose O’Neill. Source: Sky News.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlight water as not only vital for the health of the human-race, but also a key foundation for achieving all the goals. Access to water helps to support many of the other SDG’s such as 3: Good Health and Well-being, 10: Reduced Inequalities and so on. They write: “by managing our water sustainably, we are also able to better manage our production of food (2) and energy (7) and contribute to decent work and economic growth (8). Moreover, we can preserve our water ecosystems, their biodiversity (14), and take action on climate change (13)’. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to push our government to hold water companies and there regulators accountable for their disregard for our, and our children’s, future’s water supply.

Although practically there is not much we can do about the vast scale of leakage by the water companies, there are multiple ways we as individuals can start to reduce our water consumption. What’s more, many providers offer free tools and resources to help us with this, as it’s in their favour to reduce our consumption levels. The three biggest impacts you can have on your water consumption are:

  1. Fixing leaks – one toilet leaking clean water from the cistern to the pan can waste up to 400 litres of water a day and add around £300 a year to metered water bills!
  2. Installing free water-saving devices – one example is the Buffaloo which inflates in your toilet cistern so there’s less water in each every flush. It can help save up to 1.2 litres of water every time you flush! Find it here.
  3. Having 5 minute or less showers – electric showers can use up to 10 litres per minute, and power showers can use around 12. Half a 10 minute shower and save up to 60 litres each time you shower.

Other ways you can save water at home:

  • Swap your hose for a watering can.
  • Use a water butt to collect rainwater to water your plants.
  • Wash your car with a bucket and sponge.
  • Don’t leave your tap running whilst you brush your teeth.
  • Reuse water – use water you washed fruit and vegetables on house plants.
  • Always use a bowl or a sink plug when washing up.
  • Always fill your dishwasher and wash on eco.
  • Install a free water-saving device. These can be found here.

You can also download Severn Trent’s handy guide:

This article is in support of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. For more info, click here.

Sustainably Speaking

Loughborough University Sustainability Blog

Scroll to Top