Metering will save us water sooner

Published: 15 May 2020

By: Francis Heil


It’s not surprising that household water consumption has surged during the Covid19 lockdown. We’re washing our hands more than ever, and many of us are home all day using our bathrooms and kitchens.

But even before lockdown, some of us were already using more water than we need – by taking long showers, watering our gardens too often, and wasting water. Our behaviours around water usage matter.

Why? Because within 25 years, the UK will not have enough water to supply our needs – unless action is taken now, and taken every day by all of us, to save water.

This is the key message of Water Saving Week – which runs from 11 – 15 May. It may be a surprise to many, because the UK is often thought of as a wet place. However, the perception that we have unlimited water on tap is dangerously misleading.

Demand for water is rising, but available water is diminishing.

By 2050, the population will grow by over 7 million. Summers as warm as the record-breaking one of 2018 will become the norm. And climate change could decrease available water by 15 per cent.

We are already at the point where more than one in five water ecosystems in England are at risk from irreversible damage because too much water is being taken from them.

The Commission’s report Preparing for a drier future showed the compelling economic case for investing in drought resilience: it would save the UK almost £20 billion by 2050 compared to the cost of relying on emergency options. It recommended that resilience should be achieved by reducing water demand, halving leakage, and increasing supply.

Reducing demand is not about limiting people’s access to water. It means improving water efficiency and stopping water from being wasted.

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, notably said last year: “we need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea.”

Wastage makes water more expensive for everyone. It means bills will rise to pay for new supply infrastructure – such as desalination plants and reservoirs – increasing the strain on households. It also means more water needs to be taken from environments already under stress.

I have a bucket in my shower to collect water for my plants, but there are plenty of other ways we can help to save water – such as having shorter showers, using rainwater for gardens, and reducing unnecessary use of the washing machine.

But if we don’t know how much water we’re using, and our bills don’t reflect how much we’re using, then we have limited knowledge and incentives to act.

Most consumers believe it’s fair to be charged based on the water they use, and that the lack of metering prevents people from saving water. Water meters can help consumers to reduce their water consumption, without inconvenience, by up to 17 per cent.

From living in Australia, I’m used to getting regular bills which show me how much water I’ve used, how that compares to the city’s water saving target, and tips on how I can reduce my consumption and manage my bills. It’s a far cry from the UK where I receive a yearly bill with no record of my water usage.

Around half of English homes are already metered and Ofwat expects at least two million more meters to be installed in the next five years.

There’s a good case for accelerating metering to save water sooner. Why wait until the effects of climate change become severe?

Analysis by the Commission demonstrates that widespread metering by the 2030s will be close to cost neutral and deliver multiple benefits. These include reducing carbon from supplying and heating water, and improving the identification of leaks in supply pipes and in homes.

Of course, meter installation needs to be done in line with public health advice, ensuring customers are protected. Water companies also have to support their customers through this transition, targeting assistance to customers who are struggling to pay their bills and those with high water needs.

We must all play our role in saving water. Households, water companies, the government, home builders, appliance manufacturers, and water conservation charities.

Modelling by the Environment Agency suggests the most cost-effective strategy is to introduce water efficiency labels and set minimum efficiency standards on appliances such as washing machines and toilets.

Whilst these actions are vital, we must also push ahead with metering – because it can save us water sooner, and with greater confidence, for only a modest cost compared to alternatives.

This requires the government to remove barriers. Regulations which define water stressed regions were set in 2013; however, knowledge of the impacts of climate change has increased considerably since then. The Commission has recommended Defra amends these regulations to enable water companies to implement universal metering beyond water stressed regions by the 2030s.

By taking these actions to use water more wisely we enhance resilience, keep water affordable, save carbon, and protect the environment.

The ambition agreed by water companies, regulators and government in the new National Framework for Water Resources is a major step in the right direction. But we must do more on metering to ensure the framework delivers on its promise – so we can all help to ensure there is enough water for everyone into the future.

Francis Heil is Technical Policy Adviser – Water & Waste at the Commission

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