Over Christmas, I felt guilty while topping up a car with diesel. Why? Because I tend to feel bad when I’m using more carbon than I have to. I always intended to feel the same about water, but it’s difficult when the weather is wet and cold. Unfortunately, this is a poor excuse. While 70 per cent of the earth may be covered in water, only 2.5 percent of this is fresh water. Of the total freshwater supplies, less than 1 per cent is available for humans and ecosystems. There are alternatives to a life without fossil fuels; there aren’t alternatives to a life without water.
Embedded in nearly everything we do, water is a necessity for life. From the coffee we drink to the cotton we wear, it all needs water in order to exist. Did you know that the production of your morning cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water, while a cotton shirt necessitates 2700 litres of water? This puts Europe in an extremely imbalanced position, using more of the water needed by those in the countries producing the goods we use than they get for themselves, creating situations of water stress.
Within Europe, water is a serious concern. There is always word of droughts and water scarcity in southern Europe, however are seem to be becoming more common place further north with diminishing usable groundwater resources. Were you aware that several areas of England currently hold drought status? It’s been a drier than average year on the Continent as well, with areas of Finland and Sweden receiving less than 25 per cent of their normal precipitation between September and November 2011. With such a serious problem on our hands, surely this is something we should be more aware of and take more action to prevent the consequences becoming any more serious.
Water efficiency is therefore vitally important to a sustainable future. There are several options; my favourite of these is smart water metering. Although difficult to implement in certain circumstances, this would allow people to see how much water they are using and adds a financial incentive to use less as they are being charged based on their usage – which can be reported in real time. Smart water meters also create an incentive to stop excessive use of water and prevent leaks within the home (not that there should be any need for added incentive there).
If water metering becomes the norm, it might also encourage us to attempt grey water recycling and rain water harvesting (RWH) as well. Both of these are extremely important, however they are still in stages where more research is required. Simple systems remain the best – a humble water butt for watering the garden or washing a car, using washing up water to water the garden is another option, and in times of little rain, this proves more reliable – but it does depend on your washing up method – a plastic bowl is necessary.
RWH and grey water recycling, in more complex terms than a water butt, can begin to use energy, and therefore carbon, which presents a dilemma. As soon as pumps are introduced to move collected water, energy is required. We must do better than that. A catalysing boost to the research in this field is needed. Maybe research could be funded within the climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials focus of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research funding instrument? As 60 per cent of our current housing stock will still be in use in 2050, we therefore have no excuse for not incorporating retrofitting into a course of action, but it needs careful consideration. Implementing these systems in new builds is easier than manoeuvring around existing piping and listed building restrictions.
Another way of increasing efficiency is to incorporate efficient appliances in new builds and implementing new systems in old buildings. Research has shown that using aerated taps, water efficient toilet cisterns (using either six litres per flush, or a dual 4l/2l flush system), integrated toilet and sinks, flow-reducing shower heads and ‘hippo the watersaver’ cistern bricks can, when combined increase our water efficiency by approximately 32l per person per day. In tandem with implementation of smart meters, this would help to inform citizens about their water use and change habits.
Our water habit is as detrimental as our carbon dependency – I need to feel as guilty about wasting water as I do about using fossil fuels. If we react to drought warnings and begin to reduce our water use, there is no reason the situation cannot be turned around. More information needs to be out there at a higher visibility to the public to create awareness and instigate understanding and behaviour change. Why not give the EU some more to think about by responding to their current consultation on water efficiency in buildings? QCEA will shortly be posting a response on our website, help multiply our voice by adding yours.